South Africa's Kagiso Rabada (C) celebrates with teammates after taking the wicket of Australia's Steve Smith during the 2023 ICC Men's Cricket World Cup one-day international (ODI) match. (Photo by Sajjad HUSSAIN / AFP)
The Proteas are flying at this year’s Cricket World Cup. But why does the team fail to rouse the emotions and patriotism the Springboks do?
There could be a number of reasons. It might be the fact that the “choker” tag has never left them since the bungling of the 1999 semi-final against Australia, where Allan Donald and Lance Klusener couldn’t manage a solitary run in four balls and the Proteas ended up losing to Australia. The team has often choked when it counts in World Cups.
It could also be down to the racial issues that have plagued the team for years. The recent Black Lives Matter debacle, where the team battled to find common ground on a topic they so obviously should have supported, is just one example.
I could go on about the choking at almost every World Cup since 1999. Or I could bring up the racial problems Makhaya Ntini, and numerous other players of colour, have faced, but you get the gist — these are two major reasons why people don’t get behind the Proteas.
“Transformation” is a dreaded word in public spaces when it comes to sport. Rassie Erasmus, the director of rugby for the Springboks, has it spot on. To sum up his views, it is essential to have a diverse team, a multi-cultural team — that wins. Everyone must be represented. He made that clear when he took charge and look where the team is now.
One can argue that the Proteas are transformed, that there is representation across different races in the coaching and playing staff. So why all the hullabaloo? The problem is that the team has a history of racial issues, despite a good blend of colour in the squad. But also, the Proteas don’t win when it counts.
If the team lost the “choker” tag, perhaps South Africans would get behind them like they do the Boks. Take the last T20 World Cup, for example. We looked odds-on for a semi-final spot, only to fall short to the Netherlands. I repeat, the Netherlands, who are definitely not known for their cricketing prowess. Even if you didn’t watch the game and you read that the Netherlands ended our World Cup prospects, you’ll shake your head and move on.
The Boks evoke national pride when they win, the Proteas leave us with a collective head-scratching when they lose, either because of the manner in which they lose or the team they lose to.
But I confess, I still follow and support them ardently. In their past 10 matches, they’ve lost just one — to the Netherlands. (Can someone check if the Netherlands know what muti is.) They’ve hammered Australia, England and Sri Lanka. The team look a certainty for a semi-final berth at this World Cup.
Perhaps the nation will rally around them. There seems to be a shift in social media sentiment in favour of the Proteas after their drubbing of England last week.
But there’s an issue in this team that divides opinion among fans. The captain, Temba Bavuma. I think the criticism levelled towards him is unfair, especially in this format of the game. He is often the target of hatred on social media, with people regularly calling for him to be dropped.
But the man has an average of around 50, which is remarkable. In the ICC rankings, he is higher than teammate Aiden Markram (who nobody ever questions), higher than Australia’s Marnus Labuschagne (who is traitorous but remarkably talented) and higher than Kane Williamson, New Zealand’s talisman (maybe injury plays a role in this).
So why all the hate? The problem possibly is because he is a black captain, so when he, or the team, do not do well, criticism rains down on him. Naysayers will say he is captain because of transformation. That is the unbearable weight of pressure a black captain must deal with.
If the Boks were useless, Siya Kolisi would probably be a target as well.
But it’s not just that, it’s Reeza Hendricks. He is in line for Bavuma’s spot, and boy is he talented. He regularly performs with the bat. It seems as if whenever he plays, and is called in for Bavuma, he scores runs. Take the recent England game. He was called up to play five minutes before the match after Bavuma fell ill. He scored a very impressive 85.
So now the conundrum, how do you drop your captain who is very good in this format for Hendricks who doesn’t have as high an average but, when he gets form, he is simply brilliant? I don’t have the answer and the selectors and coaches have a difficult choice to make.
But whether it’s racial issues or the “choke”, the Proteas can’t seem to rouse national pride like the Boks do. However, a place in the final might just do the trick. At the time of writing, we sit in second place on the World Cup table — we’re almost guaranteed a semi spot. One foot is in the door.
I reckon the team is close to getting the nation behind them. Either way, I’ll be here backing them, watching them and hoping Bavuma leads us to a much-desired World Cup win.