Cape Town – You have to feel a bit for Ottis Gibson, standing over what are effectively the dying coals of the Proteas’ CWC 2019 campaign.
It is his now monumental task, in tandem with unusually drawn-looking captain Faf du Plessis, to try to lift the national team suitably for what are almost undoubtedly academic remaining round-robin matches – three of them, and over some two and a half torturous weeks – at the tournament.
Expect a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” sort of phenomenon against Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Australia.
End their participation with a defiant crescendo of triumphs and the Proteas will be accused of only pulling their act together after the heat of the oven had been turned down; keep up the present habit of losing considerably more often than they win at this World Cup and the knives will only be twisted deeper into their tender flesh by critics.
As things stand, the latter scenario somehow seems the likelier, even if the two Subcontinent-based teams next up still shape, on paper, as extremely winnable occasions.
Gibson’s charges will know very well -- despite the minuscule shaft of mathematical light indicating that they aren’t officially eliminated from knockout contention yet -- that they are effectively history already at their eighth crack at the highly jinxed tournament for the country.
Even in the unexpected event of winning all three remaining games (beginning at Lord’s against the Mickey Arthur-coached Pakistanis on Sunday), the Proteas will finish this one with their worst World Cup win percentage rate of all their tournaments so far.
Creeping to four victories from their nine round-robin encounters would only drag them to a maximum 44.44 percent success rate – still a bit below their previous worst CWC on own turf in 2003, the only other time they have missed out completely on the KO stage.
They played six matches at the 2003 jamboree, winning three for a 50 percent win rate which wasn’t quite enough to advance to the Super Sixes initial knockout phase.
So this one has been a statistical nadir … and it is, at the end of the day, what a great many South Africans will most remember the unassuming Barbadian’s not quite two-year tenure for.
Certainly Gibson’s closing months have been altogether less palatable than the first two thirds or so of his stint as Russell Domingo’s successor.
Two things stick out like the proverbial sore thumb in the turbulent period since early February: that first-time 0-2 home Test series howler against traditionally poor-travelling Sri Lanka, and now a World Cup that has turned out significantly worse than even the most cautious of SA observers would have imagined.
CWC 2019 was earmarked by Cricket South Africa as his grand finale; instead it’s been an absolute stinker and it may well affect his future prospects and levels of employment on the global cricket circuit.
It will also bring back into sharp focus Gibson’s suitability as an overall coach when a number of critics (including West Indies pace legend and popular commentator Michael Holding) have always insisted that the bowling department is his true forte – he entered the Proteas job on the back of holding that mantle with the England Test team.
But even on that particular front, he will be among those called to account (or at least should be?) for the failure of the much-vaunted SA pace battery to match the hostility and penetrative qualities of others at the World Cup to this point.
Going into the event with fitness clouds over certain key pace personnel – ones that perhaps still haven’t fully lifted after six of nine completed obligations – was badly exposed, particularly against the backdrop of known, extremely early toughies against England and India which all too swiftly got the Proteas onto the back foot from a confidence perspective as much as anything else.
They looked strangely timid souls even against some lesser foes who followed, and Gibson and his lieutenants just couldn’t seem to spark more of an “up and at ‘em” spirit in the ranks.
Speaking of right-hand people, the head coach was also influential in the appointment of his long-time ally Dale Benkenstein as batting coach, an area where South Africa have looked doggedly, especially fallible for a lengthy period of time … and format-wide.
When Gibson vacates his post, smart money suggests Benkenstein will follow suit: rightly or wrongly, the vast majority of the SA cricketing public would almost certainly back that event. There has been no lack of scapegoating of the latter.
Which masterminds are eventually summoned as their Proteas replacements remains a deeply vexing issue.
One good reason is just how perilous the next few months look, and not only because of the uncertainties over the international futures of such long-time staple figures across the spectrum of activity as Du Plessis, Hashim Amla and Dale Steyn.
An away Test series against India – frankly, our chances look bleaker than for the last, ill-fated tour there – and headline home summer against just as rude-health England only seem to stiffen the likelihood of a traumatic start to whoever is brave enough to begin picking up the pieces, whether home-based or again from abroad.
But Gibson’s going to go … and quite feasibly even wish to.
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing