Ignorance, hubris and humiliation
South Africa’s abject humiliation in the one-day series against Bangladesh might easily be written off as irrelevant, a minor hiccup in the aftermath of the World Cup as the selectors attempt to rebuild the ODI squad and explore new player options. But this would be a denialist approach.
The squad assembled on the day they flew from OR Tambo. Thoughts of a pre-tour camp were quickly dismissed with senior players stressing the importance of rest after their IPL campaigns, despite already having enjoyed a month off.
Coach Russell Domingo was confident things would be fine.
“The schedule is what it is, and the guys have been there before, they know what to expect and how to cope,” he said before departure.
Certain things can be done from memory, others can’t. Batting and bowling on subcontinental pitches cannot – not for South Africans, anyway. Winning the two T20s before the ODI series was an obvious diversion to everyone who knows the game and was no form guide. Warning signs were loud and clear.
A new tactic, an unknown player with explosive batting or bag of bowling tricks, an unexpected approach – every team is beaten from time to time by something beyond their control. It is not just a part of the game; it is the part that grips our attention and keeps the backroom analysts and frontline coaches busy deep into the night before a series.
South Africa’s humiliation here, however, was a throwback to any number of subcontinental tours undertaken by naive teams in the 1990s. The batting against quality spin bowling resembled that of Kepler Wessels’s team, which was thrashed 6-0 in Pakistan in 1994. Unable to muster much more than defence, the dot balls accumulated and the overs rushed by.
In those days an ODI total of 220 was par, and South Africa had won more than they had lost at home and around the world outside Asia. But on the flat pitches of Pakistan they lost with 15 overs to spare. Seam bowlers were incapable of generating reverse swing, slower balls were of a single variety and the slower ball bouncer only happened by accident.
The game and players’ individual skills have changed and advanced almost beyond recognition, which is why it was so painful and inexplicable to see the Proteas’ top order batting like their countrymen of two decades earlier.
That tour of Pakistan was Bob Woolmer’s first in charge and he realised a quantum shift in attitude was required. His first point of address was the elimination, or drastic reduction at least, of dot balls. He believed that a supremely fit batting line-up could, to a degree, counter their lack of experience on slow, low pitches by pushing the ball into gaps and running hard rather than pushing for boundaries.
It required a huge shift in attitude among a group of men who had spent a cricketing lifetime believing matches were won with fours and sixes. Jonty Rhodes led the revolution, scampering singles throughout the middle overs and putting fielders under intolerable pressure. Dot balls were regarded as the greatest enemy, a virus that grew if it was given enough of a start to its life.
Which is exactly what happened to the Proteas in the second and third ODIs. An extraordinary number – 175 – were given up to the bowlers in Dhaka despite the tourists enjoying a one-nil lead following a Bangladesh performance packed with over-confidence in the first game. It was understandable following dominant series victories over Pakistan and India, but they bounced back with a renewed sense of purpose and a return to the basic strengths that have served them so well in their most successful year ever.
Not only did the Proteas’ top order appear to lack the imagination and ability to rotate the strike and manipulate the ball into gaps, they also had not changed the approach adopted during the World Cup. This strategy meant the first 10 to 15 overs were almost irrelevant in terms of run scoring provided wickets were kept in hand for the final, explosive 10 overs when AB de Villiers led an onslaught producing two totals more than 400. De Villiers, of course, has chosen paternity leave this time.
Selection of the current squad was baffling at the outset and has become increasingly odd. Only six batsmen were selected so they were guaranteed their places. Three all-rounders were selected in a bid to further explore South Africa’s options at number seven. One of them, Farhaan Behardien, barely an occasional bowler, played all three matches and Ryan McLaren and Wayne Parnell, much closer to being genuine all-rounders, travelled to Bangladesh for no apparent reason.
Left-arm spinner Aaron Phangiso also did not play a game in conditions he may well have prospered in and leg spinner Eddie Leie, retained in the squad after an exciting T20 debut, was not even available for selection. Why keep him? His squad mates all knew he was in-form and could have made a difference.
Knowledge is a valuable resource in cricket but it is worthless to those on the field without regular or, at worst, recent practice. The Proteas may have known what to expect in Bangladesh but, in the absence of fresh time in the middle, or even nets, they reverted to the timid, defensive approach almost all cricketers adopt under pressure.
The series loss, in itself, was not a disaster. The humiliating nature of it was. Even success in the Test matches that follow will not erase that. Selection, preparation and execution were embarrassing. It will be a permanent scar, not temporary.