A story is told about the South African cricket team shortly before their tumultuous semi-final game in 1992 World Cup, after years in exile due to their apartheid policy. FW de Klerk, their white president that time, had held a referendum in South Africa to the white electorate – should he continue or not? The South African players at the World Cup in Australia were able to cast a vote, and eventually decided that a “no” vote of vent might make them pack their bags and forfeit remaining fixtures.
“68% of the electorate gave Klerk a thumbs up and South Africa stayed in the World Cup. How much did the two have to do with each other? Were we South Africans swayed by the images on their TV screens, by not just being in a World Cup but being welcomed back into the world? It did feel good,” Bob Dubery, a passionate South African fan, would tell The Indian Express. “There would be more World Cups, and we wouldn’t win any of them. Eventually any innocence we retained would be swept away by revelations of Hansie Cronje’s underhanded dealings. But for a short while, and especially in our first World Cup, it was the oldest sporting dream of all come true – all that mattered was that we were there and were playing.”
Finally, now, after years of false dawns, they aren’t just out there and playing but bossing around in a World Cup. No wonder the English lay scattered like dead leaves at the Wankhede, after they erred in fielding first on a humid Mumbai afternoon.
It’s not a team of superstars, but a team of men hardened by waiting for good news. Many of them have thought about quitting the game at one stage, or at least fell out of love with the sport. Couple of years ago, Heinrich Klaasen found it difficult to breathe, let alone run, after his torrid time with Covid and was genuinely worried about his heart condition that he didn’t think he could carry on as a professional.
Reeza Hendricks, forever in the squad but not in the playing XI waiting for either Temba Bavuma or another batsman to get injured, thought his time had past him. Aiden Markram has always had the talent, but the consistency would elude him and push him into self doubts. Quinton de Kock even quit Test cricket after taking breaks previously citing “mental health” issues. Rassie van der Dussen is another late bloomer, who had to wait not just for South Africa but also get into IPL playing XIs.
David Miller has taken his own time to mature as an international player. Lungi Ngidi has been body-shamed and also slammed by his cricketing fraternity for his support of Black Lives Matter movement. Their captain Temba Bavuma, who didn’t take the field against England due to a stomach bug, is forever under pressure about his own spot in the white-ball team, and finds himself in all sorts of memes – the latest being another rude one involving him wrapped in a blanket. More they hate him, the more his team-mates seem to stand up for him. The Test captain Dean Elgar is a big fan of Bavuma’s grace, grit, courage, and leadership.
This is a team that is intimate with waiting and failures, handling regrets and heartbreaks – but know how to soldier on.
Watching them unite as a powerhouse team under a smoggy Mumbai sky was quite an experience. At one stage, when Klassen, who could hardly stand in between balls but somehow conjured up the energy to keep whacking sixes, walked off, the entire Mumbai crowd rose in unison to give him a thundering ovation. Visibly moved, Klassen stopped near the boundary, turned 360 degrees to acknowledge them, before limping off. “In my bad patches in life, cricket was my saviour. It provides for the family,” he once said.
The current SA u-19 coach Shakti Conrad who has worked with him in the past had this to say: “There’s very much a ‘poor man’s MS Dhoni’ about him. Heinrich stays very calm in the situation. He stays in the moment. There are really no sideshows to his game and he really takes the game to the opposition. He doesn’t wait for the game to come to him and that is what I like most about him. He is as tough as they come.”
The Mumbai fans also loved the murderous onslaught from the tall Marco Jansen, who in his developmental years as a kid used to open the batting. They lapped up the composed hitting from Reeza Hendricks, who must have been under severe pressure to convert this rare chance that came his way due to Bavuma’s absence.
And they cheered when the South African bowlers snuffed out all hope out of England pretty early in the piece. Lungi Ngidi extracted bounce from back of length, Jansen allied the bounce with lovely curlers, and Kagiso Rabada, the leader and mentor of the pack, was at his awkward best. And when Gerald Coetzee came on, tying his headband in the fashion of his idol Rafael Nadal, the crowd got excited again at the disconcerting pace he generated. And when you add in the left-arm shrewdness from the spinner Keshav Maharaj and the wristy dare from Tabraiz Shamsi, this is an all-round team that not only the opposition fear but has the quality to make a packed stadium go wow.
Diversity their best trait
Not many teams are like South Africa, not just in terms of talent but the backdrop of diversity and the challenges it comes with. Their Test captain Dean Elgar put it best to this newspaper. “I don’t think there is another country in the world that has to deal with this kind of dynamics in society. We all have a unique story, be it black, white, Afrikaans, English Afrikaans; in South Africa, it’s just that we have a lot more diversity. South Africa has its own challenges with regards to a lot of dynamics that make up South Africa; it’s pretty unique and special. They are important for our social development. The way we have gone and the way things are right now in the team, I have never seen it better. The way guys respect each other and respond to one another is pretty special … Bavuma has come on leaps and bounds as a leader,” Elgar says.
Two teams have been the boss in this world cup: India and South Africa. India have been excelling in chases, South Africa whistle through when defending. South Africa have won 57% games batting first and just 44% games while chasing in this WC cycle. Netherlands pounced on that; other teams will now look to do the same.
Despite their heroics in India, South Africa, however, are yet to capture the imagination back home as the nation is obsessed with the rugby world cup. A semi-final game is about to kick off in a few hours time, incidentally against England. Telford Vice, a South African journalist here for the world cup, summarises the situation: “If South Africa win that rugby game, even this massive cricket win would come in the news under “meanwhile in Mumbai … If the rugby team loses or that world cup comes to an end and the postmortems are done, only then cricket will swing back into circulation. Not many knew what to make of this cricket team, especially in a World Cup due to the obvious past. They have been flying under the radar.”
But if a referendum is now taken in India on who is the most attractive team to watch, barring the hosts, it might not be a surprise if they pick the rainbow nation.