The ICC’s World Cup media department has been relentless in pursuit of comment from players before and after every game with even David Warner forced to break his self-imposed media silence after winning a couple of man-of-the match awards. There has been no room for sympathy or let-off for the losers. The interviews are not for the benefit of the game’s global administrators, of course, but for the people who follow the sport.
South Africa’s embarrassing trudge through five defeats and a single, unimpressive victory against Afghanistan has attracted as much interest from around the world as the winning form of New Zealand, India and Australia. Or even England’s recent, awkward stumble against Sri Lanka.
Almost every player in the squad, and most of the coaching staff, has been quizzed about the team’s dismal form. Reasons have been sought but none have been forthcoming, not because they are being kept secret or there is an ‘agenda’, but because nobody knows what they are. Or can face them – yet.
It will be years before any of the players comment on the wisdom of certain selections or whether they were based on reputation or sentiment. Players talk repeatedly about ‘controlling the controllables’ and there is nothing they can do about the composition of the squad or the starting XI. They can only control their own performance – but nobody has had an answer to why they have been so below par.
The players may not have felt listless or lethargic on the field but that is the way they have looked throughout most of the tournament. Apart from Kagiso Rabada, whose period of rest and recuperation was shortened by the shameful delay in his departure from the IPL, nobody had reason to feel overworked before the tournament. Faf du Plessis, Quinton de Kock and Imran Tahir all played in the IPL final but none complained about fatigue.
Perhaps the issue has been mental rather than physical, and certainly subconscious rather than conscious.
In an understandable effort to introduce an attitude towards the World Cup previously untried, du Plessis asked his players to play each game with a sense of perspective. After all, playing knockout matches with a ‘life or death’ approach had routinely backfired against South African teams at World Cups and du Plessis reasoned that a more measured approach might be beneficial.
“I am a bit older now, married and a father – I no longer NEED to win cricket matches, I WANT to win them but I have a sense of perspective on life and, if that helps my team mates, all well and good,” the captain said before the opening game against England.
On a similar note the captain suggested that previous generations of Proteas had placed themselves under too much pressure to produce the ‘big’ performances they believed were necessary to win on the grandest stage.
“In the past we might have believed you need to do something special to win a world cup game but you don’t always need to score a hundred off 50 balls or take 7-20. Sometimes you just need to do what you do well and back yourself,” du Plessis said
It all made perfect sense. But did the ‘relaxed’ approach go too far? When the batsmen all fell behind the required rate, batting first or second, did they ‘back’ themselves a little too much? When urgency was required were they too concerned about displaying body language which spoke of how calm and ‘in control’ they were? Were they physically fit enough to run hard singles and reverse the pressure back onto fielders and bowlers?
This World Cup should be regarded as an opportunity not just to rebuild the team but to redefine the Proteas’ approach to 50-over cricket. By and large it has never wavered from the ‘safety-first, catch-up later’ approach. It may be time to revisit that. You don’t need to catch up if you stay ahead of the game.
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