To borrow from Ted Lasso, the Wankhede outfield resembled a ‘Renaissance painting portraying masculine melancholy’.
Heinrich Klaasen collapsed near the pitch in slow motion. Drenched, he removed his shoes, pads, gloves and helmet, before burying his face in a towel, not able to move a limb.
At the top of his run-up, a cramping David Willey, who had moments ago crashed to the ground, was lying on his back and gently massaging his calves. While over at long-on, Liam Livingstone went down on his haunches like Adil Rashid, who braved a stomach bug, did at the edge of the circle.
Harry Brook, who tirelessly guarded the fence, folded his legs and sat down at deep square-leg, while Ben Stokes, who gave every England player a pat on the back when they were returning to the dressing room, was sapped at mid-off.
On a typical Mumbai October afternoon when you’d melt simply by standing outdoors for a minute, England won the toss and decided to get exhausted first. After more than three hours inside the steaming furnace by the sea, in which 399 runs were scored in 50 overs, these supremely athletic men at the peak of their fitness didn’t look like they had an ounce of energy left.
Put against this backdrop, Klaasen’s stubborn, unrelenting century that led South Africa to a thumping 229-run win over England, whose title defence is now in tatters, looks even more heroic.
Klaasen didn’t have the stamina to run. So, he dealt in sixes. When the bowlers fired yorkers at his feet, he’d take the blows but then return the favour by smashing the next ball into the stands. When the concerned physio came out for the second time, triggering fears that he’d have to retire hurt, Klaasen walked away from him.
How he managed to carry on in such agony only he knows. Then again, Klaasen has endured worse.
Back in 2021, as the pandemic raged on, Klaasen was down with the virus that kept him isolated for almost three weeks. A tougher phase was to follow when he had to regain fitness and return to cricket. Klaasen couldn’t even walk 30 metres without his heart rate shooting up. When he was asked to walk for 200m or exercise for a quarter of an hour as a part of his recovery programme, he couldn’t do that either.
“It took me a long time to just get my heart rate under control so that I could exercise at least a little bit without getting past the phase where it is too dangerous,” he was quoted as saying by ESPNCricinfo.
The sultry Mumbai weather that made him sweat buckets, triggered cramps and made running near-impossible would have felt nothing in comparison to the effects of long Covid on his lungs.
Tough times, tough guy
That phase also gave the then South Africa discard some perspective on how to chart his way back into the team – simply by playing on his terms.
For far too long, that wasn’t happening. When he made his debut against India in 2018, the big-hitting middle-order batsman swore by his natural playing style. But then, he gave away his wicket too cheaply and was dropped from the squad.
He slogged on the domestic circuit to make a comeback but upon his return to international cricket, Klaasen was no longer the aggressive batsman that bowlers – especially slow bowlers – feared. He was conservative, played within himself and feared another failure.
That didn’t work out quite well as Klaasen’s struggles continued. But then, he used the time in isolation while recovering from Covid to reflect and upon return, was his own self.
The outcome of that small mindset tweak has been immense. Since January 2022, Klaasen has averaged nearly 60 in ODI cricket with a strike rate of almost 136. The biggest evidence, if it was needed at all, of his prowess came weeks before the World Cup when he smashed an 83-ball 174 against Australia.
So it was no surprise to see him treat the English bowlers the way he did. As Naser Hussain said on TV, this was “one of the best you are likely to see at the World Cup given the conditions.”
It was the kind of knock that overshadowed the stories of two other men who know a thing or two about waiting and making comebacks.
Before Klaasen’s pre-Diwali fireworks was the opening act by Reeza Hendricks.
It feels like a lifetime since Hendricks played at the 2008 Under-19 World Cup against Virat Kohli and Steve Smith. It seems like another lifetime since he scored a century on ODI debut against Sri Lanka in Pallekele five years ago.
What began as a promising career soon derailed as Hendricks played for South Africa in ODIs only 29 times after that. And his 30th cap came only because captain Temba Bavuma caught a stomach bug on the morning of the match.
Bavuma’s dream to play at the ground where his childhood hero Sachin Tendulkar played will have to wait. But Hendricks continued his dream return to the Proteas line-up.
His entertaining knock of 85 (79 balls) included one of the shots of the day when he got into the perfect position to smash a Joe Root delivery that was straight and a little short into the stands over long-on.
Agony for English
Hendricks’ innings set the stage for Klaasen and snuffed out the hopes of an England side that was already looking tired. They were only kept alive by a valiant Reece Topley who, like Klaasen and Hendricks, is finally enjoying his moment under the sun on the big stage.
But very nearly, another major event ended in agony for Topley. The England left-arm pacer, who’d sent Quinton de Kock back to the pavilion on the second ball of the match, hurt his right index finger while trying to stop a back-foot punch from Rassie van der Dussen.
As the physio took him back to the dressing room to assess the seriousness of the injury, Topley, in a fit of rage, flung a chair and smashed a window pane. In his mind, the big-tournament curse had hit again.
For, Topley’s career has been beset by injuries at marquee events. At the 2016 T20 World Cup in India, he played just twice after being ruled out of the tournament due to a shoulder injury that required an operation. He then missed the 2019 World Cup because of a back surgery. At the 2021 T20 World Cup, he received a call-up as an injury replacement midway through the competition but was never used.
Bad luck continued to haunt him at the T20 World Cup in Australia last year, when – while warming up for a warm-up game in Brisbane, he tripped backwards over the boundary ropes and ruptured his ankle. And then, at the IPL this year, he dislocated his shoulder.
Unlike all those occasions, Topley returned to the field – with his index and middle finger taped together – and made an instant impact by taking two wickets in the first 10 balls of his second spell.
That’s the last time any England player smiled, or celebrated, on Saturday as Klaasen’s big-hitting masterclass swung the match in South Africa’s favour.
The World Cup may not end in heartbreak for Topley, who didn’t come out to bat, but the defeat could well end England’s title defence, as the melancholic faces in their dugout portrayed.