/ 17 November 2023

Proteas have put the world on notice

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South Africa players look dejected following defeat in the ICC Men's Cricket World Cup India 2023 Semi Final match between South Africa and Australia at Eden Gardens on November 16, 2023 in Kolkata, India. (Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images)

As local fans rake over the coals of defeat today, they will at least take a shred of comfort from the fact that there was no evidence of the dreaded c-word in the Proteas’ three-wicket World Cup semi-final defeat by Australia in Kolkata yesterday.

The South Africans lost the semi-final fair and square. They lost it because they didn’t score enough runs after winning the toss and batting; and they lost it because their pace and swing bowlers — Gerald Coetzee, Kagiso Rabada and Marco Jansen — were savaged early when Australia chased their below par 212.

For all this, it was a match of drama, passion and brilliance, that drama often given depth by some imperfect, edgy cricket. Catches were dropped and strange decisions taken as the action went through more cartwheels than a fairground big dipper.

Chief among them must be Temba Bavuma’s decision to bat first after winning the toss. There was sense in the Proteas’ skipper’s thinking, certainly. South Africa are more comfortable setting rather than chasing and when Australia batted under lights, the Eden Garden’s pitch offered more spin than your average government spokesperson.

Against this must be weighed the fact that it was raining in Kolkata before the game, and the players arrived to find the field covered. There was hessian over the pitch, too, and although the ground-staff did everything in their power to keep the pitch and outfield dry, Josh Hazlewood and Mitchell Starc rubbed their hands in delight when they saw how conducive morning conditions were to bowling fast.

South Africa bombed to 24 for four early on with Quinton de Kock, Rassie van der Dussen, Aiden Markram and the skipper back in the hut. At this stage it looked very much like a handy toss to lose as Hazlewood in particular bowled immaculately.

De Kock’s wicket (to a splendid running catch by Cummins) was the big one in the sequence. This was his last match for South Africa in the format and yesterday will have been a bittersweet swansong for the pathological contrarian they call “Quinnie.”

He scored a 14-ball three and then dropped two catches standing up to the spinners. He did manage to grab one, an excellent dive to dismiss Steve Smith after the ball went so high it appeared to kiss heaven, but yesterday was not the best day for one of South African cricket’s finest.

You need to buckle up when Quinnie’s at the crease. And the reason South Africa were in the semi-finals at all is in no small part because of his remarkable four centuries early on in the tournament. Privately, however, he will have been upset to have gone out of the format not with a bang but a whimper.

At 24 for four it looked that you might be better served spending your afternoon on a boat trip punting down the nearby river Ganges, except David Miller had other ideas. He combined with Heinrich Klaasen (47) for a fifth wicket stand of 95 and played both the Roundhead and the Cavalier as South Africa sought respectability.

Miller likes playing against Australia. Three of his six One-Day international centuries have come against them, and yesterday’s was reached with a six. Had he not been there to rescue things the batters wouldn’t have been able to give her bowler’s anything to aim at. As it was, the Proteas total was probably 40 or 50 runs short.

If seam had dominated for Aussie, then spin did the trick for South Africa. Markram accounted for David Warner and Keshav Maharaj accounted for the dangerous Travis Head, Warner’s opening partner, a couple of wickets later with a peach.

Tossing it up outside Head’s off-stump, Maharaj induced the drive, for Head to be bowled through the gate. Maharaj will be telling his grandchildren about the “Golden Ball in Kolkata” in 50 years’ time.

Not to be undone, Tabraiz Shamsi, who might not have played quite enough in this World Cup, stepped up with a few magic tricks of his own. Shamsi is a handy amateur magician and he got Marnus Labuschagne to disappear back to the pavilion in double-quick time before repeating the trick by bowling Glenn Maxwell.

Magic was in the air for the South Africans at this point, but it all ended on a rather more mundane note. Josh Inglis played intelligently for the Australians in wrestling the match back and so, too, did Cummins and Starc. It was a case of close but no cigar for the Proteas, and there was no c-word.

For their part, the Aussies turned their campaign around after a sloppy start in which they dropped catches and lost their mojo on the road to Ahmedabad. They will play India in Sunday’s final, and deservedly so.

What does the future hold for this South African side? Coetzee, with 20 wickets and a gunfire-quick second spell yesterday, was a revelation in this tournament, which is ironic given that he was only there because of injury to Anrich Nortje.

Although he faded as the World Cup progressed, Jansen was very good, too. Klaasen’s 100 against England in Mumbai was spectacularly destructive and Markram, the captain elect, is a sublime striker of the ball. Lungi Ngidi, although he missed yesterday’s match through injury, bowled with smarts throughout.

And while we’re at it, let’s not forget that South Africa finished second on the log after the round-robin stage, only losing to the Netherlands (an aberration) and India (deserved). Along the way they beat Australia, England, New Zealand, Pakistan (in a nail-biter), Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, several of whom they could easily have slipped up against in conditions which were never entirely to their liking.

There was no magic in winning seven out of nine before yesterday. They did so because they scored big and defended their totals, catching well and backing each other. Losing to Australia was disappointing but it wasn’t unexpected.

And there’s the 2027 World Cup to look forward to. Next time around it’s here in South Africa. Playing at the Wanderers, with the Bull Ring lit up like a Corlett Drive space-ship, well, there’s no better feeling in the world. In this tournament the Proteas didn’t bring back the ultimate prize, but they got cricket folk to sit up and take notice. That wasn’t the case four years ago in England, when they finished seventh, wilting long before the end.