No reserve day for rain affected matches in the league stage, the absence of associate nations and one-sided contests have been some of the fan’s pet peeves of this Cricket World Cup. Along with this, another major disappointment of this World Cup has been the performance of South Africa -- or rather, the lack of it.
When South Africa was reinstated in international cricket in 1991, the first noticeable change they brought to the limited-over format was their prowess in the fielding department. Jonty Rhodes elevated the art of fielding at point to a whole new level; penetrating the wall he erected there was next to impossible. The quick single to point was taken out of the batsman’s options, and nothing epitomised this as much as the image of a flying Jonty Rhodes running a younger and relatively more agile Inzamam-ul-Haq out in the 1992 World Cup at Brisbane. Sunil Gavaskar was so impressed by his fielding standards that he still calls the point region “Jonty’s corner”, a tribute to the athleticism Rhodes brought to the limited over format.
Fast forward to 2019. Seven World Cups later South Africa, known for their outstanding fielding, is one of the worst fielding sides in this tournament, and arguably lost their June 19 match to New Zealand, and potentially knocked themselves out of the tournament, because of two missed catches, a bungled run out and a catch dropped off a no ball, all at a critical point in the chase.
In this World Cup, South Africa has dropped 8 catches out of a total of 35 chances, with a catch efficiency of 77.10, third from the bottom ahead of New Zealand (74.30) and Pakistan (76.70). South Africa and Pakistan are the only teams in this World Cup who have not effected a run out so far. Out of 22 run out chances South Africa had in this World Cup, 19 of them were off target. Their accuracy at hitting the stumps (13.60%) is just below Afghanistan’s 6.30%.
South Africa and ICC tournaments share a very odd relationship. A consistent performer in the limited overs format, South Africa has invariably been unlucky at critical moments and at crucial junctures. From the scars of being asked to score 22 off one ball at Sydney in the 1992 World Cup semi-final, to the genesis of the choker tag in the tied semi-final of the 1999 World Cup, to the racial dynamics that dominated the South African camp and the dramatic semi-final defeat in 2015 against New Zealand, where the South Africa-born Grant Elliot hit a six off Dale Steyn when 5 was required off 2 balls… South Africa’s memories of the quadrennial event is laced with more heartbreaks than heroics.
South Africa’s one day performance is a conundrum. Between Cups, they dominate the format and have more than once been ranked number one, which is why they invariably enter every edition of the quadrennial tournament as favourites. This is the first time, however, that South Africa has entered the marquee event without being labelled as one of the favourites – despite the fact that of the 16 bilateral tournaments since the last Cup, they have won 13 (the three losses coming to India, England and Bangladesh).
That they did not enter the 2019 edition as favourites could have been a blessing, as it could have freed them of the burden of expectations and helped them to expresses themselves freely.
Unfortunately, though, this is also the first World Cup where their consistent under-performance, rather than luck, has put them in the position they are currently in. Having started the tournament badly with three losses and a washed out game, they needed to win against New Zealand to give themselves a realistic chance of reaching the final four. Thanks to their inept display in the field and the resulting loss to the Kiwis, a final four finish now looks far-fetched. If they do make it, and that is a big if, it will depend on other teams performances and lots of luck.
While their fielding cost them that much needed win over the Kiwis, the Proteas have not distinguished themselves with the bat or ball either.
South Africa has lost a wicket for every 30.36 runs, which is the cheapest runs per dismissals for the Proteas in the last 5 World Cups. And if that is the case with the bat, the bowlers have hardly fared better – they have conceded 5.3 runs per over and 36 runs per wicket in this edition, their worst bowling performance in the last 5 World Cups.
South Africa is currently ranked number 4 in the ICC ODI rankings. Quinton de Kock, Faf du Plessis, Hashim Amla, Imran Tahir, Kagiso Rabad and Andile Phehlukwayo feature in the top 20 ODI batting and bowling player rankings respectively. Quinton de Kock and Faf du Plessis feature in the top 10 run getters in ODIs between the 2015 and 2019 World Cups, both with an average of more than 50. Kagiso Rabada and Imran Tahir are in the top 5 wicket takers list in that period.
Going by the above numbers, you would think South Africa came into this tournament with an embarrassment of riches in both the batting and bowling departments – but in reality, in this World Cup no South African batsman is in the top 10 run scorers list, even though they have played the most number of matches of all teams.
Their serial misadventures in World Cups had earned them the tag of “chokers”. In fact, after the 2011 Cup debacle Luke Alfred, then a media consultant to Cricket South Africa, wrote a book on the team titled ‘The Art of Losing’.
And therein lies the irony. Once, in the middle of a bad run of form, Greg Chappell was asked why he was batting badly. “I am not batting badly,” the then Australian captain said. “I am not batting long enough to be batting badly.”
That is the story of South Africa in this World Cup. You can’t call them chokers – they haven’t played well enough to choke.