ICC World Cup 2019, England vs South Africa: Underachievers get flag-off rights
Is this World Cup England’s to lose? Most definitely. Are South Africa underdogs in this World Cup? Probably. These would have been unthinkable propositions two decades ago. Such has been the nature of cricket in recent years that it has prompted a reversal of prediction for two teams that have the most unwanted history in the World Cup.Updated: May 30, 2019 08:42 IST
England football manager Gareth Southgate was in the house on Wednesday, to regale the England cricket team with his journey, provide inspiration, give a lowdown on how a dressing room reacts to victories, defeats and—most importantly—handle expectation. He should know. This is the man who made his country fall in love with its football team again.
Even though England bowed out in the semi-finals last year, it was still their best performance at a World Cup since 1990, and the manner in which Southgate’s team played revitalised English football. There are parallels here for the English cricket team; they too are a resurgent side, playing a breathtaking game after making sweeping changes in the last few years. And as hosts, they are the centre of some intense expectations. Cricket is on the decline in the country, and England, who have never won the World Cup, and last made the final in 1992, is expected to not just win it this time, but also make the game relevant again for fans in Britain.
Is this World Cup England’s to lose? Most definitely. Are South Africa underdogs in this World Cup? Probably. These would have been unthinkable propositions two decades ago. Such has been the nature of cricket in recent years that it has prompted a reversal of prediction for two teams that have the most unwanted history in the World Cup. In keeping with the tradition of starting with a bang (read: possible upset), the ICC too must have thought why not start with them?
It would be a first-up test of England’s World Cup mettle, to prove the one-sided results against Pakistan were not fluke and ensure the brilliant streak at home isn’t gone to waste. With a balanced side at their disposal and Morgan given a long rope to get used to captaincy, it’s time for them to get cracking. From being a side that had made to three World Cup finals to one that forsook one-day cricket in favour of Test success to the current status of being the No 1 ODI side, England’s transformation into an aggressive unit is palpable.
In the longer run of the tournament, Morgan wants to win the Cup to endorse England’s coming of age. And he won’t take anything less than a winning start against South Africa. Easier said than done though, given England had last beaten South Africa in a World Cup in 2011. These are but obvious challenges England have to overcome. Morgan knows that.
“We would like to be at a stage where we’re in and around this position right now on a consistent basis. Because when you look at other teams around the world that have consistently competed for World Cups like Australia and India, in particular, they find themselves they are all the time and it’s not by fluke,” said Morgan at the pre-match press conference.
If England have wholeheartedly embraced the hype, South Africa are comfortable with the unfamiliar tag of underdogs. Without AB de Villiers, without Dale Steyn in the first game, this is as low profile a South Africa team that can be in a World Cup. Faf du Plessis is a hardworking batsman, an honest captain. He neither has the aura of Hansie Cronje nor the talent of de Villiers. He will promise you hard-earned results, probably not with the dominance South Africa were previously known for, but he will get you there. So even if South Africans might hold it against him for losing an ODI series to India last year, he knows form leading up to the World Cup counts for nothing.
Cronje came to realise it when Allan Donald stumbled to cross over in 1999. And then, at home, four years later, they got a simple D/L par scoresheet calculation wrong. If it’s an ICC event, South Africa discover ways to lose. Not to forget how even the elements have conspired against them. Till the rain rule put together an impossible and unfair target of 22 runs in one ball, Kepler Wessels had almost led a young South Africa to their first World Cup final in 1992. Aware of all this and more, du Plessis is happy letting other teams be in the focus.
A pragmatic approach, almost to the extent of being unsentimental about the World Cup’s worth to South Africa, is behind du Plessis’s philosophy. “Cricket is a very important aspect of all of our lives, but it’s not everything. You know, life, there’s a lot bigger things than winning and losing games of cricket. And that, perhaps, has changed for me. The fact is that I’m no longer desperate. I want to win cricket games but I don’t need to win them,” said du Plessis.
“I think as a team, hopefully that can filter through, because no one taught me that four, five years ago, playing in these events, and hopefully that gives the guys on the rest of the team just a little bit more of a relaxedness to them; that the absolute worst-case scenario, you don’t make it, and that’s okay, life will go on. And if players are a little bit more free, and can just play their best version of themselves, then that’s great. That’s all I’m looking for.”
These are wise words, stuff a World Cup greenhorn like Lungi Ngidi or Kagiso Rabada might want to fill their ears with before going out to the field. And du Plessis is bent on keeping it that way, as low key and informal as possible. “It’s a case of making sure that we have a really good time together, because that’s when you are most relaxed. When you are intense and desperate, I think that’s when you make mistakes,” he said.
The 12th edition of the World Cup kicks off with two schools of thought pitted against each other. On one side are an unfamiliar South Africa—the underdogs who are quietly sure about their ability. And on the fast lane are England who just want to keep pushing their boundaries. Only time will tell who has chosen the right approach to winning this World Cup.