Proteas verdict: A creaking Dad’s Army

Faf du Plessis (Getty Images)
Faf du Plessis (Getty Images)

Cape Town - Look, with seven matches still to play by South Africa, the Armageddon remains at arm’s length.

But only just.

The national team are tottering on the back foot at CWC 2019, all right, following Sunday’s unedifying upset at the hands of Bangladesh … falling to the canvas for a full count far sooner than we would have imagined most certainly is a threat.

By losing their second tournament fixture on the trot, at the same venue of The Oval, Faf du Plessis and company are now responsible for the worst World Cup start by the country in their eight-tournament history: nought from two at the front end is virgin World Cup territory for them.

You might argue that the last time they began one so shakily was the 2003, home-hosted jamboree, when they were perhaps fortune to have had Kenya (yes, they did beat them!) as second opponents - they had lost the opener at Newlands to West Indies and were also whipped in game three by New Zealand at the Wanderers.

Pessimists are entitled, frankly, on current form to suggest that the Proteas will remain on zero points after Wednesday’s third match, when they tackle another of the more heavyweight one-day international powers in India at the Rose Bowl.

Truly it would be difficult, should that transpire, to envisage the South Africans managing to claw back into the semi-finals picture from there, as it would almost certainly require a minimum of five victories from six remaining dates to be back on course for the unusually quickfire knockout phase.

As things stand, they look highly unlikely to be able to go on such a necessary, marauding run of triumphs considering the multitude of shortcomings evident against both England and Sunday’s admirable, surprise package Bangladeshis.

Do not totally dismiss the possibility that the Proteas get things right, albeit against the odds, when they lock horns with India … even if the best argument in favour of saying so is simply that their opponents will be playing their first tournament match, having not played as an ODI unit since as far back as early March when they allowed visiting Australia to claw back from a 0-2 deficit to pinch the bilateral series 3-2.

South Africa had been coated in some rust, too, leading into the World Cup, and my own belief after the England reverse was that they would look profoundly more polished in game two: a bit like Du Plessis with the toss against the Tigers, you could say I was found to have made a questionable call.

If anything the Proteas just looked more shambolic, really, on Sunday, their skills, nous and execution of duties falling well below standards more customarily expected of them.

It is sometimes suggested, for example, that fielding competence demonstrates much about a team’s broader zest and professionalism: well, this team looks noticeably more susceptible (at least after two outings) on that score than almost all SA predecessors at the World Cup.

Still fairly recent, long-serving South African captain Graeme Smith, speaking in television commentary while gaffes in both ground-fielding and catching were mushrooming in the Bangladeshi batting onslaught toward their record 330 for six, used the word “shoddy” several times and reminded unflatteringly that the country carried “a few passengers” in that department.

He was referring to some of the ageing legs in the Proteas camp, but also the fact that many in the squad are walking a tightrope by either carrying injuries, delicately recovering from them or incurring new ones; the last-named phenomenon on Sunday afflicting big-boned young paceman Lungi Ngidi, a hamstring problem curtailing his bowling quota to four overs.

It all adds up to an undesirably dangerous cocktail.

With their much-vaunted speed arsenal being pretty contemptuously walloped to all parts of the ground at this early stage of the event, attention turns with increased urgency to whether the legendary Dale Steyn can be fast-tracked to action against Virat Kohli and company in midweek.

“He’s bowling in the middle now, so hopefully there’s some progress there,” was the less than fully assuring comment of skipper Du Plessis on the Phalaborwa Express in his immediate on-field interview after Sunday’s stinging outcome.

If Steyn does make it onto the park on Wednesday, bear in mind that the nearly 36-year-old has bowled a grand total of eight competitive overs since March 31 – two matches for Royal Challengers Bangalore in the Indian Premier League before his bowling shoulder flared up again, forcing another layoff.

So should he hit the ground (or read: crack the line-up) at Southampton, it may not be “running” yet in the fullest sense.  

If you think I may have painted a picture of some sort of “Dad’s Army” in look and feel being what the Proteas presently resemble, you would not be too far off the mark.

Physical/medical considerations aside, they also disappointed acutely against the smarter Bangladeshis for the ill-discipline that characterised both their bowling and batting.

The quicker men seemed to fall back into the old mode, so much more advisable in South African conditions, of going crudely back of a length on the (complacent?) assumption that the less heralded Subcontinental outfit would succumb to the assault and battery.

When the Tigers instead got off to a morale-lifting flyer, it just seemed as though the scattergun, stubbornly inflexible Proteas bowlers had no discernible Plan B, or at best weren’t adhering to it.

“I can’t recall too many yorkers being executed,” observed neutral commentator and former West Indies strike bowler Ian Bishop.

By shrewder contrast, Bangladesh’s seamers took pace off the ball liberally, making South Africa work consistently hard for their runs in the stiff, ultimately ill-fated chase, and did find vital reward at times for pitching closer to the bat.

That all of the Proteas top six got “in” could be regarded as a plus, providing crumbs of comfort going forward: less palatable, however, was nobody having the required patience to provide the one really beefy innings that might have got them over the line.

It’s going to be tough from here, and there’s a great deal of repair work to do, but the scornful “just bring them home early” appeal doing the local rounds on social media remains a little harsh ...

* Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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