Wilting Proteas must accept death

“Death, therefore, the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not.” — Epicurus

Sometimes the best thing you can do for a dying team is to let it die. Only when we fully accept its impending demise can we begin to plan for life after death.

True progress can never come from prolonging the inevitable. Right now, we seem to be doing exactly that.

There was a sense of déjà vu sitting at SuperSport Park this week. Off the pitch, the occasion felt identical to the game that preceded the side’s current predicament: the Boxing Day Test and the first of a three-game series against Pakistan.

Like that match, the sun scorched endless empty seats as it made its way across the grounds. Those who did attend sat without a hint of anxiety.

Even as the middle order began to bottle their position, no one believed the result was in question. One game removed from one of the worst defeats of post-apartheid cricket and we’ve been lulled back into a delusional feeling of omnipotence.

It’s the illusion that was played to us in December. South Africa’s pace ripped through Pakistan on Pretoria’s violent crease. Kagiso Rabada thrived, earning eight scalps on the day.

Two weeks later the Proteas repeated the feat at the Wanderers.

In retrospect, we know that the highveld can be a great trickster. It largely denied the opportunity for nuance in attack and allowed the Proteas to scrape by on brute force. As we also know now, that can be painfully insufficient.

Although Tests get a breather and much-needed time to regroup, many of the same issues carry over now to white-ball cricket. They’ve clung to life and are now desperately scrambling to resuscitate themselves as the World Cup quickly approaches.

“It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything.” — Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club

The problem is that they’ve never given themselves any opportunity to reinvent. For too long they’ve been content to take it game by game, to fill holes rather than revolutionise. There’s arguably been little importance placed on blooding younger players to prepare them to replace some of the ailing stalwarts.

It’s a stubbornness that’s left us with answers that might not be answered in this ODI series.

The decision to bowl first at the Wanderers negated any pressure for the batsmen who easily swept aside their target. On Wednesday, when asked to kick things off, they collapsed just as 300 began to look inevitable. Once again Rabada (3/43) et al ensured there would be no blushes.

What’s worrying is that on both occasions it’s been Quinton de Kock and Faf du Plessis who carried the runs — two guaranteed selections for the plane to England in May. De Kock has been uncharacteristically deliberate and prudent in his swings, allowing him to build a foundation of a fighting total with his captain.

Against the calibre of opposition they’ll face at the World Cup, that won’t be good enough. And it’s hard to see where the improvement will come from.

The all-rounder experiment that’s being trialled this series is failing. They’ve made no significant impact with ball or bat so far — a state of affairs epitomised by Wiaan Mulder lasting two overs after he got the nod to start at number five.

While the wickets have been falling, Hashim Amla has been given a rest by the selectors. His is a situation that should have been sorted out a long time ago. Instead, heads turned the other way and refused to entertain the idea of him being phased out. Now there seems no other option but to pick him up front and hope for the best.

This last-minute scouring of the alternatives hasn’t given us anyone who would jeopardise his ticket. Instead we got the emergence of Anrich Nortje — a bad joke considering the glut of fast bowlers.

It’s hard to know how the disconnect between the two sides of the team is going to manifest into performance at the World Cup. But it’s also hard to see the Proteas as a contender in the final. What will happen will happen: there’s not much more that anyone can do at this point. But once it has ended, let’s accept that our old ideals, the way things have always been done, need to be allowed to die.

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Luke Feltham
Luke Feltham

Luke Feltham runs the Mail & Guardian's sports desk. He was previously the online day editor.

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