/ 9 November 2023

Are the Proteas taking us down heartbreak lane?

Icc Men's Cricket World Cup 2023: New Zealand V South Africa
Quinton de Kock has scored four centuries in this tournament. (Photo by Pankaj Nangia/Gallo Images)

The Proteas have the wrong name. They should really be called The Heartbreakers because, unfailingly, they lead you up the garden path and look you in the eye. They might even allow for a quick fondle and a fumbling kiss. Then they turn their back on you as if you were never there, flouncing off to their next engagement.

Once there, they will behave in exactly the same way. We know it in our bones.

During the World Cup in India they have tweaked the theme, taking far longer to break our long-suffering hearts than they usually do. In truth, they have played some accomplished cricket in the tournament so far.

They have beaten (undercooked) England, Australia, Pakistan (narrowly) and New Zealand, but this coming week they stand on the threshold yet again. It is semi-final time — South Africa have never progressed beyond the semi-final stage in a World Cup — and so the moment of heartbreak is upon their fans. How well we know this story.

The semi-final match-ups aren’t cast in stone but South Africa will probably play Australia, while India, who will finish top of the log as the only unbeaten side in the 10-team competition, will in all likelihood play New Zealand or Pakistan.

Having said this, there is a fly in the ointment. Afghanistan are loitering just outside the top four or five and should they beat South Africa on Friday, they might just sneak into the play-offs. South Africa would prefer not to lose to them but if they do it doesn’t matter — they have already qualified for the semi-finals. We just aren’t sure whether it will be in second position or third.

In the 2019 World Cup in England, the heartbreak was swift and brutal. The Proteas lost their opening game to England at the Oval and subsequently lost to Bangladesh and India.

The Bangladesh loss was excruciatingly galling. Bangladesh batted first and scored 330 for six on the back of a sub-standard bowling display. South Africa were competitive in the chase with 62 from Faf du Plessis, 45 apiece to JP Duminy and Aiden Markram and 41 to Rassie van der Dussen but they just failed to drag themselves over the line, losing by 21 runs. It was heartbreak hotel all over again, a place you can check in to, but never leave.

It is always difficult to recover from losing early in a competition and it wasn’t until match five against Afghanistan in 2019 that South Africa had a win under their belts. By then the front runners were off in the distance. South Africa were left to hobble along like a rag-and-bone man in their dust. They posted end-of-the-tournament wins against Sri Lanka and Australia but it was too little, too late. The Heartbreakers finished an ignominious seventh.

This time around, things look different. The Proteas have a new coach in Rob Walter, formerly of the Titans, after a furlough in New Zealand. Walter has recruited his back-room staff wisely.

Duminy, who played in the 2019 World Cup, is alongside him and so, too, is Eric Simons, for many years Stephen Fleming’s assistant at the Chennai Super Kings in the Indian Premier League.

As a bowling all-rounder, Simons played a handful of One-Day Internationals for South Africa in the dark days before readmission. Later, he coached South Africa, having done well with his native Western Province domestically.

It was a difficult period for South African cricket, coming, as it did, after the meltdown of the Hansie Cronje affair. 

Simons said afterwards that accepting the national coaching job was by far the worst decision of his cricket career. He was young and comparatively inexperienced and didn’t know what he didn’t know.

“There’s obviously a fear that you’ll never be offered the job again,” he told me many years later. 

Top notch: The World Cup’s leading wicket-taker, Marco Jansen, talks to captain Temba Bavuma. (Photo by Pankaj Nangia/Gallo Images)

“If I look back at my time with the Proteas I was probably too prescriptive, in that I told players what to do. Nowadays I’m more focused on outcome and execution. I like to have a conversation with a player rather than telling them what to do.”

Walter and Simons will have been talking to the players nonstop in India, making them aware of their options and treating them with a kind of avuncular respect. The philosophy has served them well. 

Having announced this will be his last hurrah for South Africa, Quinton de Kock has scored four scintillating centuries in this World Cup and Marco Jansen, the left-arm seamer, is among the tournament’s leading wicket-takers.

The Proteas are settled, know their roles and are all worldly-wise. Keshav Maharaj is a left-arm spinner of almost sinister guile and Markram, Van der Dussen and Heinrich Klaasen make up a powerhouse middle order. 

If ever there was a time not to break hearts, it is now.

Against this needs to be weighed the fact that this World Cup looks suspiciously like India’s to lose. Playing South Africa at a packed Eden Gardens in Kolkata on Sunday, India scored 326 for five, thanks to Virat Kohli’s 101 not out and Shreyas Iyer’s 77.

In reply, South Africa badly mislaid their mojo. De Kock went early and wickets tumbled. For much of the time in the South African chase it looked like the school First XI was taking on the under-15Bs, many of whom were playing with mis-matched kit and in school shoes. In the end, the Proteas lost by a mammoth 243 runs. 

Top score? Jansen with 14.

This kind of snotklap can play havoc with a team’s confidence and Walter and Simons will have used all their wisdom this week to counsel calm. 

You don’t suddenly become a bad side overnight, and the Proteas have had a far better tournament than many predicted. 

Maharaj and Tabraiz Shamsi held their nerve in a narrow one-wicket win over Pakistan and the team looks happy and have caught well – a sure sign that they’re in a good space.

Should they play Australia in the semi-final, Walter and Simons will remind them that before they went off to the World Cup, the Proteas played the Aussies in a five-match series here in South Africa. After going 2-0 down, the Proteas roared back to record a 3-2 victory. 

True, Australia were without some of their gun players — Mitchell Starc, Glenn Maxwell and skipper Pat Cummins — for the series, but players have memories. The recent memory of the series victory will serve them well.

Then again, South Africa have developed a reputation over the last while of being a side that like to bat first, setting up big totals and flattening the side batting second with scoreboard pressure. When they are asked to chase, as happened against India at Eden Gardens, they don’t cope so well. 

This puts a disproportionate amount of emphasis on winning the toss and batting. Opposition captains know that if they win the toss it’s a sensible idea to bat first because the Proteas don’t traditionally respond well to chasing.

So there we have it. Will it be a place in the final or a heartbreak? 

On their day these Proteas are a much like the little girl in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem. When they are good they are very, very good, but when they are bad they are horrid.