Every four years a different approach has been taken by the South African captain and coach ahead of the World Cup. Not only have their ideas been full circle, they’ve probably been around twice in the last 28 years.
They started as amateurs in 1992 with zero expectations other than to have a good time and soak up the atmosphere and graduated to strong favourites with, man-for-man, the best team in the tournament in 1999. And, although they stopped well short of carrying trumpets to the tournament to signal their arrival, they weren’t afraid to be labelled as favourites.
Four years later there was no escaping the label on home soil. Remarkably, or perhaps not, the wounds of the semi-final tie had not healed and ebullient UCBSA president, Percy Sonn, chose a medication perfectly suited to his rambunctious personality but most of the players and many supporters were far less comfortable with lashings of hubris being applied to the campaign. Turned out it wasn’t “our time” after all.
Most South Africans are not only unaware of the amount – and level – of vitriol which has been aimed at the players over the last 20 years of ‘failed’ World Cup campaigns, but would be appalled by it.
The vast majority are appreciative, sympathetic and understand that nobody fails to score one run off four balls, misreads a D/L sheet or drops a catch on purpose. But it just takes one drunk moron to abuse you in a restaurant or get through on your hotel phone at 2:00am to leave a lasting impression. The younger players even question whether it was their fault – perhaps they really aren’t good enough and, worse, that they really did let the entire country down.
Du Plessis is perfectly happy for his players to dream of winning the tournament and won’t disabuse anyone of the notion that doing so would ‘unite’ the country. But he is a realist and a pragmatist and wouldn’t hesitate to say that dreaming about anything does nothing towards getting it done. And that while sport might give a lot of people something to smile about, lasting unity needs to be provided by governments, the business world and educators.
This will be a squad with its collective eyes open, a squad prepared to give all of themselves to the cause but not one prepared to leave important pieces of themselves behind. They will travel together, they will look out for each other and they will return together. Several of them are keen fishermen so they understand the analogy: “You can be the best fisherman in the world with the best research and preparation available, but there are just some days when you don’t get a bite.”
Some in the squad, notably coach Ottis Gibson, have concerns that taking the pragmatic, fatalistic approach might, somehow, lead to a less intense campaign. Having seen all the previous ones, I disagree. The problem in the past has been too much intensity. I suspect the majority of cricketers will have more chance of holding onto an important catch in the knowledge that he does not have the weight of his country on his shoulders. And that the sun, you know…
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