For all of South Africa’s chequered history at cricket World Cups, their performance this time round takes the cake. Captain Faf du Plessis even claimed he was “excited” by the prospect of South Africa’s being tagged underdogs. Yet the team were the roast of the town by the second week of the ICC Cricket World Cup 2019, for simply not having kicked it past first gear.

It’s a team that has been highly competitive in the past, carrying the tag of tournament favourites over the past couple of decades despite their propensity to tumble at the end stages. But for the first time since their post-apartheid readmission to cricket in 1991, South Africa have shown a frailty that seemed deeper than a jinx.

Timing is everything

There is something to confidence and momentum, a fact Du Plessis touched upon, calling the defeat to Bangladesh a case of “taking the wind out of our sails.”

Recounting that horrendous first week when South Africa lost all three matches they played, including the one against Bangladesh, du Plessis said, “If you start well, your confidence in your team will grow and then from there, anything is possible. But to start the way we did… You come here already with the expectation of needing to do well and then you go to zero from three, and that expectation becomes a weight on your shoulders. That is a heavy burden to carry.”

There is some merit in lamenting the schedule of the ICC Cricket World Cup 2019 which saw South Africa play three matches in the span of a single week, the very first week, including matches against tournament favourites England and India.

But the rot had set in even before the Proteas’ campaign got underway.

One of the areas Cricket South Africa must look at when planning future tournament campaigns, is how the buildup to the World Cup is shaped by the Future Tours Programme itinerary.

While India were playing Australia down under and then again in India, in a five-match ODI series prior to the Cup, South Africa had to settle for hosting Pakistan and Sri Lanka, not the best teams to be sharpening one’s claws against.

No plan was put in place by CSA as the team continued to be tinkered with until the eleventh hour, since their defeat in the home series against India early last year.

Thereafter the warm-ups did little for South Africa, playing against Sri Lanka and the West Indies. Is it any wonder, then, that by the time South Africa were playing England they found themselves out of their depth, then were tripped up by Bangladesh before being fed to an avaricious Indian cricket team?

Too much in flux

Most teams begin planning for the World Cup at the tail end of the previous edition. Evidently, South Africa did not.

Andrew Husdon, speaking to a local radio station back home, expressed displeasure about the team’s shortcomings. “They needed courageous cricket, needed to be flamboyant and to play their shots.”

For a team with no backup plans, with a playing eleven not set in stone, playing courageous cricket was a distant ask. South Africa were groping in the dark, as injuries and form took their eventual toll on the ill-prepared team.

Hashim Amla’s phenomenal form from two years ago deserted him, as did the selectors, almost. Early injury put paid to his contributions, with du Plessis calling upon Aiden Markram and Jean Paul Duminy to fill the gaps.

As Quinton de Kock and Amla probed for runs, there was an ad hoc middle order of bowling all-rounders in Andile Phehlukwayo and Chris Morris. It was far from being the ideal batting line up as the opposition teams chalked up scores in excess of 300 runs on a whim.

By the time Amla and du Plessis, also with a penchant for big runs, joined forces in the match against Sri Lanka, it was too late.

Another man who has shown intent but not enough has been Quinton de Kock. His story could be the story of most players in the South African team, of getting past the initial hurdles but failing to surmount the next and make hefty contributions, as their peers have done.

Although Rassie van der Dussen showed chutzpah as a late replacement for AB de Villiers, the team did not seem cohesive enough in terms of a game plan to get it together. There was much promise on show, whether in Phehlukwayo or Morris who was not a first choice selection in the fifteen member squad.

If South Africa were hoping their batting concerns would be overshadowed by their bowling exploits, they were in for a rude shock. Dale Steyn’s shoulder injury ruled him out of contention. Lungi Ngidi struggled to keep niggles at bay. Kagiso Rabada could not bring his A-game from the Indian Premier League into the ICC World Cup.

Apart from Imran Tahir and the supporting act, South Africa did not have the arsenal to stop the rampaging opposing teams from cantering away.

It was not until the match against Sri Lanka that Dwaine Pretorius was brought back. His man of the match performance in that virtual dead rubber of a match had the skipper sheepishly admitting that South Africa had struggled for balance in their bowling attack, looking for accuracy.

A lack of preparation is one factor. But South Africa just did not have a solid enough playing eleven to identify a bench strength. That perhaps tells the whole story.

The ‘Superstar’ conundrum

With the quota and Kolpak deals staggeringly leaking away talent such as Duanne Olivier, the South African team was always leaning towards bankruptcy before it took the field.

Clutching at straws, opinion was divided over the revelation that AB de Villiers had made an eleventh hour appeal, and also about du Plessis’ frustration over Rabada’s workload.

Chastised for criticising Rabada’s participation in the IPL, du Plessis was merely stating the obvious, given the absence of a reservoir of talent conditioned to take up the burden.

It was fatigue that led to Rabada’s listless performance, robbing the tournament and his team of exploits.

De Villiers meanwhile had retired from international cricket right in the middle of IPL 2018, of his own volition, knowing the ICC Cricket World Cup was only a year away. To accommodate the blistering batsman at the last minute thereafter would have contravened policy and any sense of fairness, and Cricket South Africa rightly stuck to their guns.

Those calling for AB’s inclusion forgot that in past editions the team had failed to move forward with him leading it.

As another South African captain who shares the ignominy of a first round World Cup exit, back in 2003, Shaun Pollock knows a thing or two about sting. He made a comment on air about “things being a little jumbled” when it came to team selection, and did not mince words that the last minute inclusion of ABD in the 2019 World Cup squad would have been “disruptive”.

A bridge between?

“We still had fun, got experience in England, playing in a tournament like this. We will definitely be back, firing, looking to nail some of the things we haven’t nailed in this tournament.” That was how Kagiso Rabada sunmarised South Africa’s time in England.

Du Plessis would not share the 24-year-old bowler’s perspective. Rabada went on to claim that this World Cup experience was “not the lowest point of his career.” It is deeply disconcerting, but also indicative of why the team management, as du Plessis stated, was unable to dissuade the young fast bowler from participating in the IPL and focus instead on helping his team get the prestigious trophy.

Du Plessis did indeed look over 35 years of age, pained like his predecessors to explain, thrown off by the depth of South Africa’s lacklustre outing. He was a picture of disappointment:

“The results we’re dishing out at the moment are a little embarrassing. But as players, we need to front up to this challenge and I need to be a part of that.”

Being South African and being a captain has really brought this disappointment home for Faf who could perhaps have played his last World Cup himself.

“I’m a very proud player and captain and playing for South Africa means a lot to me… For me as captain, I can’t retreat into the background. The fact that we’re playing below our level really chips away at me.”

The urge for calm and common sense was proffered by Jacques Kallis in his column for the International Cricket Council. “Some will demand everything is changed but a total cleanout is just not the way ahead. We need to be more considered and thoughtful. The first thing that needs to be looked at is the brand of cricket South Africa are playing, and all the players will want to be part of that conversation.”

That conversation will involve some uncomfortable issues, including the players’ commitment in the face of economic hurdles, the lure of Twenty20, investment in a four year plan, a mental strategy to combat this drain, and sacrificing some ‘soft’ strategies for the hard ground of training, which was criticised under Kepler Wessels’ captaincy but set the benchmark for teams after the 1992 World Cup.

Faf du Plessis will unfortunately go down in the annals of cricket history as yet another South African captain who mysteriously bowed out of the game without quite find the missing piece to South Africa’s World Cup muddles.

Whether there are more facts in the underbelly of the sport, undermining the competitiveness of the team on the field, is something that will need further exploration – if we can stomach the contents that may tumble out.

Also read ‘South Africa: The Jinxed Chokers No One is Talking About’.