Flying under the radar or not, South Africa seem to have figured themselves out

October 15, 2023

With quiet confidence, they are continuing to announce their presence at the World Cup

Flying under the radar or not, South Africa seem to have figured themselves out

Kagiso Rabada was not so much laughing at Steven Smith as with technology when the big screen flashed three reds. It confirmed that the delivery Rabada bowled, which straightened from middle stump and struck Smith high on the pad would go on to hit leg stump, something very few people, other than Quinton de Kock, thought would happen.

It was on de Kock’s nod that Temba Bavuma decided to review what seemed an appeal for appealing’s sake. On immediate assessment, the ball appeared to be missing leg even going over the stumps. Rabada himself was “hoping for an umpire’s call,” so South Africa could retain the review and Smith would be temporarily stopped from taking him on. The previous two balls were hit for four and Smith looked in imperious form but with the help of the DRS, his stay was cut short and Rabada created an opening into Australia’s middle-order. It was as good a time as any to have a chuckle.

The significance of that wicket lies both in the fact that it was Smith who was dismissed and that it was Rabada who did the dismissing and the events it triggered. The pair have history, of course, dating back to 2018 when Rabada’s shoulder made contact with Smith as he celebrated removing him in a Test match at St George’s Park. Then, the incident sparked the unraveling of Australia in a series now known as Sandpapergate. This time, it also prompted a collapse: Australia lost four wickets for 20 runs starting with Smith and Rabada was responsible for three of them.

He cleaned Josh Inglis up — a wicket that was clearly a wicket - and had Marcus Stoinis caught behind off the bottom glove, which may or may not have been in contact with the top glove. Technology, again, smiled on South Africa.

But it would be grossly unfair on South Africa to attach their win to the gains they made on the DRS — though it is worth mentioning that the only time Australia asked for a review on the field half-heartedly was when they thought Quinton de Kock had nicked off Cummins and UltraEdge showed only a flat line — and not give credit to a flexible batting blueprint backed up by potent attack. Unlike in Delhi, where South Africa could capitalise on the last 10 overs, where they scored 137 runs against Sri Lanka, on a surface that slowed up in Lucknow, they had to start well and did.

De Kock and Temba Bavuma are now South Africa’s most successful opening pair by average and have shared four century stands. De Kock, freed from the burdens of continuing in this format post the World Cup, is playing as well as he has ever done but that does not mean he is doing it recklessly. In fact, his starts have become more circumspect, his shot selection more careful and his understanding of his scoring areas more clear. Today, he targeted the short boundary, just 63 metres square of the wicket and played a selection of reverse-sweeps just wide of that in a display of pinpoint placement.

That de Kock is having a good World Cup so far after South Africa’s poor showing in 2019 bodes well for the team; that Rabada is, is even better.

Four years ago, Rabada was bowling in an attack that was supposed to be led by Dale Steyn, who ended up having to withdraw with a shoulder injury. Now, he is supposed to lead the attack - which is without its most intimidating quick Anrich Nortje and its death bowling specialist Sisanda Magala – and is also supposed to do it from first change. South Africa have made what Rabada called a “team decision,” to open the bowling with Lungi Ngidi and Marco Jansen in a search for any early swing. That paid off handsomely in Lucknow.

While the heat of the day was leaving the city, it found a home in South Africa’s new ball bowlers, Ngidi in particular. His opening spell of five overs included two scoreless ones and the wicket of David Warner, cost nine runs and was consistently delivered at 144 kph. He stuck to back of a length and maintained tight lines and said after the match that he feels fitter and stronger than before. Given who South Africa are missing, that’s good news.

South Africa are also demonstrating qualities of adaptation that are needed in a long tournament across various venues. In Delhi, they picked four seamers and a spinner, in Lucknow, they opted for a three-two combination on a surface that was expected to, and did, offer some turn. By the time Keshav Maharaj and Tabraiz Shamsi were called on, the bulk of the damage was already done and there may still be questions over how quickly they cleaned up the Australian tail. For Rabada, South Africa played ‘pretty much the perfect game.”

Over the last seven years, they have an exceptional record against Australia and had beaten them in 15 out of 20 ODIs before today, including winning a recent home series 3-2. That was the only competitive cricket South Africa played between April and this World Cup.

Australia, on the other hand, have competed in an Ashes, a white-ball series in England and South Africa and played ODIs in India before the tournament and could, understandably, be spent. Their fielding performance suggested as much and the crowd kept a tally of their missed chances and displayed them on a banner to remind them how much they were getting wrong. It would also be that given the recent results, South Africa have figured Australia out. But there’s another option here. It could also be that South Africa have finally figured themselves - the squad that came to this World Cup - out.

Their bowlers came into this tournament with some big names and reputations but without Nortje and Magala were very much seen as the supporting cast to their stellar top six, who are expected to set the tone. It’s helped that they were put in to bat in both matches and have yet to be tested in a chase. It has also helped that they have come in under the radar in both their own country and this one.

South Africans are focused on the Springboks - who play a Rugby World Cup quarter-final against hosts France - this weekend and in India, the focus is on the home team, on England, on Pakistan and now, on whether Australia can get back on track.

Perhaps quietly, that has given South Africa the opportunity to have a laugh amongst themselves as they continue to announce their presence at this event. But is it too early to dare to dream? Obviously.

“We’re still a long way away but there are plenty of positives to take. It’s just about leaving this behind once we leave that behind and focus on the next game, that’s it,” Rabada said.

And for now, that’s it that we’ll say about South Africa. –Cricinfo

Flying under the radar or not, South Africa seem to have figured themselves out