What’s a New Zealand-South Africa World Cup fixture without drama of Shakespearian proportions? There was the de Villiers run out and the Kiwi man-marking of Faf du Plessis in 2011; there was the penultimate ball six off Dale Steyn in 2015.
Today at Edgbaston – the venue of the only Proteas win over the Kiwis in the last five World Cups – there were two missed catches and a run out missed, all in the space of eight balls in a tight chase; there was another catch dropped, only it was off a no ball.
But what will remain as a memory rivalling the six off Steyn is this: Imran Tahir found Williamson’s bottom-edge off the last ball of his spell – and nobody appealed. The Kiwis were 183/5 then, Williamson 76 off 108. Somehow, that seems to sum up the Proteas story in not just this but every single World Cup.
And not surprisingly South Africa – Fortune’s Fools, if ever a team deserved such a designation – found itself on the wrong end of the result, for the fifth successive time against the same opponents.
It was scrappy, it was ugly, it was nerve-wracking for both sides. Here are a few highlights:
The Short Ball Set-up: One of the talking points of this World Cup has been the preponderance of short, or back of length, bowling.
It hasn’t always worked. The West Indies battery of tall, muscular quicks have used the short ball as the go-to option. The technique caught the eye when they destroyed Pakistan in their opening fixture; it looked good when they reduced the Proteas to 29/2 inside 7.3 overs before rain washed their Southampton fixture out.
But the short stuff proved unable to contain England when the Windies defended an under-par 212, again at Southampton. And, most remarkably, Bangladesh destroyed that tactic when, at Taunton on June 17, the “Tigers” chased down a mammoth 322-run target inside 42 overs with seven wickets in hand.
Here, Lockie Ferguson produced a little masterclass on how the short ball can be used. It was in the 14th over, just when Faf du Plessis after a quiet start was beginning to find the range on his shots, that Lockie bounced him. It was the first short ball in the Proteas innings -- a 149k scorcher that Faf just managed to evade.
The next ball was the knockout: a yorker that tailed in a little from outside off onto the base of off stump. Faf, after the previous bouncer, was parked deep in his crease with his feet nailed to the ground – in no position, mentally or technically, to keep out a ball 148k delivery that left a vapour trail in its wake.
Ferguson demonstrated the art of the one-two punch again in the 16th over when he pushed Amla back with a quick short ball, then followed up with one fuller, and even quicker, in the channel. Like de Kock, Amla was well back in the crease, his feet nailed to the floor; he was lucky his panicky slash did not end in a nick-off.
It’s a classical fast bowler’s dismissal: short, then full. And yet, no matter how many times we see it, no matter how forewarned batsmen are, it works every single time – provided you have the pace to pull it off. Faf’s was the second Proteas wicket to fall – but in actual game terms, it was the one that pushed the batting side onto the back foot.
Connecting up the dots: “Bowl dots… Keep the batsman on strike… Bowl in partnerships” – how many times have you heard coaches, bowlers, commentators, saying that is the key to a successful bowling performance? What does it all mean, though? The Kiwis produced a performance that should go into the textbook.
Aiden Markram drove Lockie Ferguson for four off the 5th ball of the 16th over. The next four was scored by Hashim Amla off Colin de Grandhomme – off the 5th ball of the 23rd over.
47 deliveries between boundaries, and during this period the combination of Mitchell Santner, bowling his left arm orthodox stuff at around 60k, and de Grandhomme, whose fastest ball barely touched 128k, sent down 47 balls that produced a mere 19 runs.
Also look at the period between overs 31.2, when Markram smacked Trent Boult to the fence, and 41.2 when Rassie van der Dussen thumped Santner for six over long on. 59 deliveries, by a combination of Boult, Santner, de Grandhomme and Ferguson produced a mere 48 runs – this during the period when a team setting the target is looking to push pedal to the metal.
More numbers to tell the story of the Kiwi choke-hold: Between overs 1-39 (in a match reduced to 49 overs), the Kiwis bowled 137 dot balls out of 234, maintaining relentless pressure at both ends.
The first hundred of the Proteas innings came off a painful 152 deliveries; the next hundred took a marginally better 116 deliveries.
The chart above tells the story of an innings that got mired in molasses.
It’s not that the Proteas batted badly – it is that the Kiwi discipline with the ball was exemplary, with each bowler bowling to his particular strength, the whole backed by a fielding unit that, within the ring and in the outfield, moved with the precision and grace of ice-skaters. (Two bad drops in the outfield marred what would have been a perfect display of fielding, but in the event, neither really mattered).
Unhonoured, unsung…: How does it go? Quinton de Kock is a “dangerous opener”. Hashim Amla – who, in course of a 55-off-83 crawl that was painful to watch got to 8000 runs in ODIs in 176 innings, second fastest behind Virat Kohli – is “an all-time great”. Aiden Markram is “a rare talent” (here, for the 14th time in 26 innings, he got into his 40s and got out, which tells a story of lack of real substance). Faf is “in great nick.” David Miller “can be destructive”.
The one you don’t hear superlatives about is Rassie van der Dussen – and yet, he is the one who has impressed, every time out of the gate.
Coming in to bat in the 28th over, it was Rassie who got the South African innings out of the quicksand it was mired in, and pushed it towards a semblance of respectability.
He kept rolling the strike over to the supposedly free-spirited David Miller. When Miller got out in the 45th over, Rassie was 44 off 52; he smacked 23 off the next 12 and left you wondering how different the Proteas total would have been had he, not Markram, come out at two down.
The notable aspect of his wagon-wheel: it was overcast, humid, and there was movement off the seam almost throughout the innings. Given that, Rassie cut out the one shot that in such conditions can get you in trouble – the open bat face to glide to third man. He scored just two in that area, and just one behind point. And again, given the conditions, he depended on driving very straight (27 runs in the V and 13 more to the cover drive), the pull and the flick.
Runs on the board equals gold in the bank: 241 is not a “target” by contemporary one-day standards -- but it still needed to be got. And the thing with even small targets is that they seem to swell by twenty, thirty runs each time the chasing side loses a wicket cheap.
By that calculus, the Kiwis added a good 80 runs to the Proteas score by the time their chase was 20 overs old. Colin Munro’s neck or nothing style of play makes him a candidate for an early exit anyway, and Rabada hastened it by making one stand up off length, cramping him for room and catching him off his own bowling.
Kane Williamson, going along smooth as silk (26 off 26 at that point) and an unusually circumspect Martin Guptill (33 off 43 in the partnership) put on 60 runs and, with 61 on the board after 14 overs and seemed to have the chase well in control.
And then the wheels came off. Williamson took two fours off Phehlukwayo in the 15th. Guptill, looking to make a thorough job of it, went for an almighty hook that swung him around a full 360 degrees; his back foot slipped as he looked to take off for a run, and the bails came off. Another fortuitous dismissal followed: Ross Taylor looked to work a harmless Chris Morris delivery to fine leg and managed only a faint touch through to de Kock. In his next over Morris produced the kind of delivery quick bowlers dream of producing to left-handers: quick, on length, hitting middle and off, lifting and leaving the batsman. All Tom Latham could do was nick off – and the Kiwis, in the space of 20 balls that produced eight runs, had lost three key wickets.
Moral of the story: There is no such thing as an “easy chase” – at least, not until the winning run has been scored.
Kane is Able: Root, Kohli, Smith, Williamson – four batting stars around whom not just their teams, but the modern game itself, is constructed. And of the quartet, Kohli and Williamson are the polar opposites: the one flamboyant, the other so understated as to go almost unnoticed.
Coming in to face the 14th ball of the innings, Williamson started smooth, easily outscoring the flamboyant Guptill. And then, when his partner’s departure triggered a landslide, he dialed it back and settled into the role of classical anchor.
A caption for the image above would read “Smart batting 101”.
The ten runs down to third man will, if you weren’t actually watching, suggest an innings of many outside edges and nudges. Not so, though: it is just an example of how Williamson manipulates the field.
A quality of his batting is that he plays pedantically straight – hence the 18 runs in the V on both sides of the bowler. Like his three peers, he cover drives fluidly and uses his wrists well to work the midwicket region.
Here, the Proteas bowlers were looking to starve those shots – with very good fielders posted in the ring and the outer cordon. Williamson kept playing the shots; the fielders kept anticipating, diving and cutting them off. So he began opening the bat face and running them down to third man.
To stanch the bleeding, Faf was forced to put a fielder either at a short third man or a widish gully – which meant taking out a fielder from someplace else. And immediately, Williamson produced the shot to target the newly opened gap. Towards the back end of the innings, he then used the late dab as the least risky option of turning the strike over – and kept doing it no matter what field Faf set. It was percentage cricket of the highest order.
He reached his 50th ODI 50 off 72 balls. And a measure of how he held his side together is this: When Guptill got out, Williamson was 26 off 26. Once wickets tumbled, he cut out the shots, and focused on steering the chase, batting so far within himself that his next 24 runs took 46 balls.
The photo finish: Like Rassie with the bat, Chris Morris is the unsung Proteas hero with the ball. The likes of Rabada, Ngidi and Tahir get the star ratings; Morris just runs in and does his thing with a quiet, deadly efficiency.
Jimmy Neesham (23 off 34) and Williamson looked to have put the chase back on track with a 57-run partnership when Morris, brought back in the 33rd over, produced a replica of the delivery he used to remove Tom Latham – angled across, on length, lifting and seaming away to defeat the attempted cut; the only difference was that this time the left-hander’s edge went to Amla at slip.
Imran Tahir has done for Williamson four times in their eight meetings so far; how he didn’t make it five out of nine, neither Tahir nor Williamson will ever know. The premier spinner found Williamson’s outer edge, inner edge and leading edge; he beat him on the front foot and back… Off the very last ball of his spell, he even managed to get Williamson nicking off, but neither de Kock nor anyone else noticed the edge, there was no appeal, and when Tahir bowled out Williamson was still standing, just.
Colin de Grandhomme walked out with his side a precarious 137/5, looked around as though wondering what the fuss was all about, got off the blocks with a searing boundary, smacked Rabada and Pehluhkwayo for soaring sixes… It was almost comical, the contrast between the burly all-rounder’s insouciance (his fifty took him just 32 balls) and the struggle everyone else had to go through.
Ngidi did for de Grandhomme in the penultimate over, but Williamson was still there – just, because he could have been caught and bowled off the very next delivery; a mere 14 were needed off 12, and it was all a little bit too late. A Williamson slog sweep off the second ball of the last over brought him his century, and the Kiwis parity. A four off the next ball ended it all – a tame finish after all the drama.