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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Ali Martin

Bavuma’s laidback South Africa seem a different World Cup proposition

Aiden Markram roars in delight after reaching 100 from 49 balls for South Africa
Aiden Markram roars in delight after reaching 100 from 49 balls for South Africa. Photograph: Sajjad Hussain/AFP/Getty Images

Back in 2011 The Spin was lucky enough to be in Bangladesh for the World Cup opening ceremony. It was a night of music and fireworks at the Bangabandhu, the captains paraded around the stadium on gilded rickshaws and the one carrying South Africa’s Graeme Smith amusingly broke down. Bryan Adams also belted out three of his hits in one of the Canadian’s more eclectic bookings.

Despite some personal envy the next morning at Patrick Kidd in the Times wondering whether Summer of ’69 was in fact six for nine, and thus a nod to Michael Clarke’s career-best Test bowling figures, it had been a pretty uplifting evening. The streets of Dhaka had been gridlocked and filled with a crackling electricity; a clear message of “hello world” being honked by a chorus of car horns.

There was no such fanfare in India this year, organisers instead opting for the low key by flying all 10 captains into Ahmedabad for a press conference the day before the first game (and no doubt keeping sponsor Aramco happy with the fuel consumption). And from that press conference, beyond niceties and news of Ben Stokes’s injury, emerged a photo of Temba Bavuma seemingly asleep in his chair.

In fairness, Bavuma had only just arrived after an exhausting late dash back home to South Africa to attend to an urgent family matter. He also insisted afterwards that the image delighting the wags on social media was a dodgy camera angle that gave the appearance of his eyes closing, rather than having actually drifted off to the land of nod.

But what if something bigger was at play; what if Bavuma’s slide down his chair said something about South Africa’s current outlook. Four years ago the Proteas failed to get out of gear, get out of the group, and, many diagnosed, get 2015’s harrowing semi-final defeat by New Zealand out of their system. Yet, from afar at least, something feels different this time – as if they possibly care less and are better for it.

Only clear minds can produce an opening gambit such as turning the Feroz Shah Kotla into the plunderdome last Saturday. A flat pitch was exploited to perfection against the recent Asia Cup finalists, Sri Lanka; 428 for five ransacked for the highest total ever witnessed in a World Cup game. A record three centuries, from Quinton de Kock, Rassie van der Dussen and Aiden Markram, fired it, Markram raiding the fastest in the tournament’s history from only 49 balls. Hello, World Cup.

And it was not a total shock. While some teams turned attention away from 50-over cricket in recent times – South African cricket even doing its bit for the existential angst when dropping a one-day international series in Australia for their new SA20 league – the Proteas, ie the first team, have appeared liberated. In the past 18 months their ODI runs have been reaped at 6.54 per over, with last week’s pyrotechnics a seventh 300-plus total in 17 innings and a second north of 400. They’ve got something going.

Quinton de Kock plays a shot against Sri Lanka
Quinton de Kock is one of only two South Africa survivors from the team’s heartbreaking 2015 semi-final defeat Photograph: Money Sharma/AFP/Getty Images

The effect of 2015, a semi-final heartbreaker with more than a whiff of administrative overreach, should not be underestimated. AB de Villiers once told me he was left broken by it, caught up in the belief World Cups define careers, which, given the stature of the player, underlines this. But the shadow has retreated, with only two survivors in De Kock and David Miller, and a lineup that appears unencumbered these days.

De Kock, who turns 31 in December, is the jewel in the batting crown and has the air of a guy with nothing to lose. To be fair, the left-hander always played in a languid fashion, those drives as buttery as his eyes are doleful. But having stated his intention to retire from ODIs after this World Cup – full T20 specialism after quitting Tests in late 2021 – and ridden out 11 years of South African cricket politics, there is total clarity.

The palindromic Markram is another looking at peace. A one-time top order wunderkind who flatlined for a fair spell, he has emerged out the other side as a fearsome middle-order player aged 29. Van der Dussen has been the glue at No 3, and in Heinrich Klaasen they have one half of a power-hitting middle order alongside Miller. Klaasen’s 83-ball, 174-run assault on Australia at Centurion last month – one that helped turn a 2-0 deficit into a 3-2 shellacking – is likely to get a mention when the two sides meet in Lucknow this Thursday.

Temba Bavuma talks to his teammates during their Cricket World Cup against Sri Lanka
Captain Temba Bavuma (second left) has forged strong bonds among South Africa’s squad after years of turmoil under the country’s cricket board. Photograph: Matt Roberts/ICC/Getty Images

The loss of Anrich Nortje’s pace is a blow, certainly, but a varied attack is still led by the enduring excellence of Kagiso Rabada. At the other end of the spectrum experience-wise is the 23-year-old Gerald Coetzee, a tearaway quick who bowls less politely than the surname suggests but sounds unlikely to become consumed by the pressures of silverware. “I am a person who enjoys cricket,” he told earlier this year. “My identity doesn’t fall on cricket, it falls on who I am as a person and my relationship with God and my family.”

Neil Manthorp, who has charted the pulse of South African cricket like few others over the years, detects a strong bond having developed under the stoic Bavuma in response to years of players being mucked around by a dysfunctional board. Test cricket has, rather heartbreakingly, been pushed to the margins, but the advent of the SA20 and its bumper contracts has also provided the kind of wider financial security that was hitherto the preserve of the big guns.

All this may be a case of projection, of course, one game into a subcontinental World Cup that sees them possibly a spinner light aside from Keshav Maharaj. Make the semis and, as Bavuma himself has said, only winning the whole thing will stop the criminally overused tag of “choking” resurfacing. If Klaasen is the man to clear the airways at the business end of this marathon tournament, perhaps it will become known as the Heinrich manoeuvre.

But, with apologies for that previous line, South Africa do seem a different proposition this time around; certainly in better shape than Smith’s rickety rickshaw back in the day.

• This is an extract from the Guardian’s weekly cricket email, The Spin. To subscribe, just visit this page and follow the instructions.

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