The city loves retro rock ballads. Every pub or restaurant would subject your ears to the forgotten tunes of the Scorpions or the ageless classics of Led Zeppelin. So when South Africa’s team bus careened in the twilight sky into the stadium ahead of their semifinal against Australia on Thursday, someone with a portable speaker, at the entrance, rolled out an old Scorpions number: “Here I am, rock you like a hurricane.” An unimpressed cop would shout at him to mute the speaker, which he did, but the echoes of the song swirled in the hazy evening, and lingered on the lips.
An energetic rock song would capture the effervescent way South Africa have gone about this World Cup. Their batsmen have piled on the big totals—five times they have batted first and all five times they have racked up 300-plus totals. The totals intimidate—428, 311, 399, 382, 367. The manner they reached those scores thrilled. The bowlers have bundled out teams for less than 180 thrice—two of them, Australia and New Zealand, are in the semifinals, the other dethroned World Champions England. True that South Africa have stuttered twice in the tournament—both when chasing, it should be noted—but they have entertained like few other iterations of South Africa. Entertained in not a self-destructive way, but in a systematic manner.
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Since reintegrating, they have possessed the personnel and skillset to be among the favourites—in eight editions past, they have been to the last four, often looking the most unbeatable team, on as many as four instances, but without lasting till the end. Over the years, they boasted some generational talents, a posse of high-class all-rounders, a ceaseless chain of pure fast-bowling breed, an assortment of wondrous batsmen, from grafters and buccaneers to accumulators and pyro-technicians. So rich that if perhaps you ventured into the dubious business of assembling an all-time greatest South Africa ODI team, perhaps none of the present crew would be an un-debated choice. But that is beyond the point.
There has always been a pragmatism about South Africa, a streak of self-doubt stifling them from scaling the peaks they should have scaled, of shackles falling from the skies. Like something ineffable shoving them down the slope in the vicinity of the peak, a sudden shiver of fear rising through their spine. But Bavuma’s men are fearless, driven as much to succeed as to entertain. Even before the World Cup, in the thrilling ODI series against Australia, there were signs of their methods. But doubts lingered on whether they would be able to replicate it in the World Cup. So far, they have not taken a step back.
At the heart of their bravado approach and the entertainment value they exude is the sheer variety of cricketers they have. Quinton de Kock is one of a kind blend of grace and power; Bavuma is a bundle of boundless energy, be it on the field or with the bat. No South African captain would have celebrated a World Cup win as feverishly as he did after the one-wicket win over Pakistan. Rassie van der Dussen can quickly and seamlessly shift between attack and defence; Heinrich Klaasen can wreak mayhem in the twitch of an eye; Aiden Markram can be an anchor, accumulator and destroyer, and in many ways the spine of the batting line-up. Poor David Miller has not often been summoned to unleash his fury on bowlers.
Van der Dussen apart, the rest have been commanding a 100-plus strike rate too. None of them perhaps might induce wonder as AB de Villiers would have, but they could leave bowlers with crushed spirits.
In the bunch of largely understated batsmen, they have arguably the most balanced batting line-up in recent times, as wholesome as perhaps the 1999 one. They have been more glittering bunches, but not this efficient ones. Similarly, they have flaunted more lethal pace-bowling units. Like the Allan Donald-Shaun Pollock-Jacques Kallis-Steve Elworthy quartet of 1999 or the Dale Steyn-Morne Morkel-Vernon Philander trio of 2015. But not always have they been blessed with a lanky, left-arm quick of Marco Jansen’s calibre, their second highest wicket-taker of the tournament.
Similarly, they have not had a spinner of Keshav Maharaj’s guiles, operating at the peak, since the days of Imran Tahir. Add the left-arm wrist-spinner Tabraiz Shamsi into the mix, there would not have been a more versatile bowling core. The bite of Kagiso Rabada, the bark of Gerald Coetzee, the relentlessness of Lungi Ngidi, the angles of Jansen, the controlled magic of Maharaj and the unique trade of Shamsi, a South African eleven has rarely been this versatile, if ever.
Thus, to liken this brand of cricket to rock music, to reduce it to one specific genre, is denigrating the melting of different unique riffs. There is the classical strumming of Maharaj’s fingers; the heavy metal tunes of Heinrich Klaasen; the punk rockish rendition of Quinton de Kock. At their best, South Africa is a jugalbandi of different streams and tunes, all pleasing on their ears, all vibrant to watch.
Thus, South Africa have discovered an identity, a characteristic they have not always commanded. The lack of a distinct identity, former captain Graeme Smith once wrote in Athletes Voice, was hampering South Africa. “There were guys who were proud to play for South Africa, but there were no real traditions or values within the environment that we stood for,” he wrote. Smith and Co would overhaul the environment, blend in cricketers from different backgrounds.
The journey began with finding the true meaning of Protea. “We did a lot of research into the Protea itself. It is a resilient flower. It’s the first flower to regenerate after a fire. The Ubuntu (a Nguni word that embodies the values of community and humanity) theme became a really powerful thing for us. It was about not only how we played the game but also how we want to be seen as a team around the world,” he detailed.
It was also about expressing the skills to the fullest, as Bavuma’s men have in this tournament. And so diverse their skills were that the man with the portable speaker would have played any song and it still would have resonated with the team’s capacity to thrill, entertain and most importantly, win games.