/ 23 October 2021

T20 Cricket World Cup: Same old Proteas or renewed hope?

South Africa V England 2nd T20 International
Tricks up his sleeve: Wrist-spinner Tabraiz Shamsi is a magician both off and on the pitch. (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

Long-suffering Proteas fans tend to approach World Cups with a uniquely South African blend of hope and dread. They are hopeful, as they should be, that past Protea performances — to mangle a phrase — are consigned to the scrapheap of history. But they are also painfully aware that the Proteas are a side which, come knockout tournament cricket, tend to promise much but deliver little, which accounts for the dread.

The Proteas are indeed the ANC of the world game, taking their place alongside (if you’ll permit the extended metaphor) assorted right-wing neoliberals (Australia, England, India) not to mention the dangerous mixed economies of the West Indies and Pakistan.

The problem with expectation that commingles hope and dread is that it is exhausting. Few can sustain both expecting the best and the worst in a single sitting, and T20 cricket, which is quick and improvisatory, magnifies these facets of our national sporting psyche.

For all the calculated mayhem of a T20 international, though, we should remember that the form is also a great leveller. In the very fact of its abbreviation, T20s can be won (or rescued) by an innings of reckless abandon or a death spell of perfect bowling.

Conditions in Abu Dhabi, Oman and Dubai where the World T20 is being played, will favour the sub-continental teams, but too much can be made of this. International cricket is fast becoming like international football, where home ground advantage is a nominal concept.

In the 2019 Cricket World Cup, the Proteas finished seventh of 10, between Sri Lanka (sixth) and Bangladesh (eighth), and they will be hoping not to repeat their unflattering performance this time round.

Kagiso Rabada, South Africa’s St Stithians College-educated champion fast-bowler, said a couple of days ago that the Proteas “had no baggage”, from 2019 or anywhere else. This is blather. You can understand Rabada’s reluctance to get bogged down in the swamp of disappointments past, but it might have been wiser to face the shadows.

The Proteas have a reputation for being “chokers” at such tournaments. It’s an unfair phrase, but it is there, so best acknowledge it. To do otherwise suggests that there are not only elephants in the room, but hippos, rhinos and hyenas too.

This aside, there are things to know about the next few weeks. The tournament format divides 12 teams into two groups, with each team playing those in their group once, with the top two teams progressing to the semi-finals, by which time it becomes a knockout. Other than Australia, whom South Africa play on Saturday afternoon, the Proteas play the West Indies, two qualifiers from a tournament taking place as we write, and England.

If we assume that the Proteas beat whomever is spewed out of the qualifier, they also need to beat two of the three other major nations to progress. Their most realistic chance is to beat the West Indies, and the reasons here are worth exploring, although the Aussies are struggling with form at the moment.

First, they’ve beaten the Windies in a T20 series recently, doing so 3-2 four months ago in the Caribbean. Second, the Windies are an ageing side, who have indulged in a bout of pre-tournament bickering which hasn’t played well.

The series in June revealed something else, however: that when the Proteas batted, they scored in a range between 160 and 168 runs. Scoring in the 160 to 168 range was good enough to win the series in the Caribbean but against the really good sides it probably isn’t.

The good sides comprise of at least four or five: England, India, Pakistan, New Zealand and Australia. If the Proteas do finish first or second in their group, they will need to beat at least two of India, Pakistan and New Zealand to win the final in the knockouts, a tough ask.

The reasons for the Proteas not scoring more heavily is found in the fact that they are over-reliant on their twin lefties — Quinton de Kock and David Miller — and the right-handers in their top five, Temba Bavuma and Heinrich Klaasen, don’t have strike rates commensurate with top T20 batsmen worldwide.

This said, Bavuma is a stellar fielder, and the team will be difficult to beat because of their bowling — a manifest strength. Tabraiz Shamsi, the wrist-spinner, is a magician in his spare time and this extends to when he jumps into the green – apparently Ndebele-themed for the World Cup — kit of his country.

Which brings me to England, so often the team in recent seasons who have exposed South Africa’s frailties. The Proteas play them in their last group game on 6 November, which could well turn out to be an effective quarter-final. The nation will watch, charting a course — surprise, surprise — between hope and dread.