How low can the Proteas sink?

South African cricket teams are not unfamiliar with the level and intensity of anger currently being directed at this one, but in previous World Cups it has only peaked when the team has crashed out of the tournament. Not after two games.

At previous World Cups the public backlash has been disproportionate to the effort and commitment shown by the players. In the past they have not deserved the wrath and scorn that was heaped on them by an understandably disappointed but mostly uninformed public.

The performance against Bangladesh, however, was amongst the shabbiest ever produced by a South African ODI team and the vitriol it created was justified. Bowlers can have bad days and batsmen can make unforced mistakes – it happens. But there is no excuse for lacking energy and intensity in the field.

It was obvious inside the first half an hour that something was wrong. Not only was there no ‘presence’ inside the fielding circle but there was either a stubborn refusal or (far worse) an inability to change tactic and strategy. The Bangladeshi batsmen were supposed to be bullied and bounced out. That’s how it worked in the past, and it was damn well going to work again.

Kagiso Rabada and Lungi Ngidi delivered a barrage of short balls and bouncers and opening batsman Soumya Sarkar crunched 42 from 30 balls with nine fours. Captain Mashrafe Mortazahad promised to “fight fire with fire” before the match and that’s exactly what the batsmen did. Shakib al Hasan and Mushfiqur Rahim are playing their fourth World Cups. They’ve been playing international cricket for nearly 15 years. They’ve earned some respect. They added 142 for the third wicket with the bowlers just trying to hit them on the head.

The fielding was shoddy and uncommitted. The knock-ons and dropped catches were even more embarrassing than the one-dimensional bowling while the batsmen’s efforts flickered briefly before being snuffed out by their own errors and poor shots choices. Faf du Plessis said afterwards that his team were operating at “about 50-60%” which, he said, meant that “even Bangladesh” could beat them easily.

He may not have meant to say “even” but that was the word he used. The team which transformed itself years ago from perennial underdog and under-achiever into a consistent threat against the game’s ‘major nations’. The team which beat the West Indies three times in succession in a World Cup warm-up tournament. Even Bangladesh could easily beat a Proteas team operating at half capacity.

Ngidi wasn’t fit in the tournament opener against England and he was once again labouring in the four overs he bowled against Bangladesh before hurting his hamstring. Hashim Amla was unavailable for selection and Dale Steyn still wasn’t ready for action. Even when everyone is fit and healthy South Africa have more fielding passengers than any other teams except Afghanistan and Sri Lanka.

The team’s mantra before the tournament – “flying under the radar” – has been a little too closely adhered to. The problem with aircraft which use the tactic to avoid detection is that they run the risk of crashing into small hills or tall buildings.

Wednesday’s match against India has now become a ‘must win’ game. If South Africa lose it they will have to win all of their remaining six matches to be sure of a semi final place – although they might make it to the last four on a mathematical whim with five out of nine wins.

Dale Steyn will have to play even though he is not yet 100% fit, a gamble the team has no choice but to take. South Africa’s tournament could be all but over after India have played just one game. Why are India such late starts? Because the BCCI ‘suggested’ to the ICC that a delayed entry into the tournament might be well received because of the late finish to the IPL. When the BCCI tells the ICC to jump, they ask ‘how high?’

It is better than asking ‘how low?’ which is the question being asked of the Proteas at the moment.

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