West Indies’ fast bowlers were walking through the motions on the eve of a contest that they surely believe they will win. Eighteen deliveries each in the nets: wheels greased, areas found, rest and recuperation the priority as they prepare to hit their lengths once again – preferably nasty, brutish and short ones to give South Africa’s beleaguered batsmen another awkward hurry-up.
Well, that’s the plan at any rate. For West Indies are in a happy place at this World Cup – smarting a touch, maybe, after failing to close out victory against Australia at Trent Bridge on Thursday, but satisfied with the overall trajectory of their campaign. Led by the endeavours of Oshane Thomas and Andre Russell in particular, they’ve tapped into a mindset that served their mighty forebears well, and are doubtless banking on causing further havoc the deeper they go in the tournament.
“We are playing our way, we are not looking at other teams. We are playing what works for us,” said Roddy Estwick, the West Indies bowling coach. “We are playing the West Indian way. We are playing a brand of aggressive cricket with a smile on our face. And if that will take us to the success that we are looking at, then that is very, very important.”
There’s no presuming that every team will succumb to West Indies’ chest-high, slog-that-if-you-dare, mode of attack, but you won’t find South Africa of all teams trying to claim that they’ve got their tactics wrong.
After all, long before the narrative of their floundering campaign was hijacked by the vacillations of AB de Villiers, they too had been dreaming of seizing the tournament in a hail of pace. Kagiso Rabada, Dale Steyn, Lungi Ngidi … Anrich Nortje lurking on the bench to provide back-up firepower. A veritable onslaught of options with which to transform their World Cup reputation.
But now, three defeats and as many injuries later, Plan A has been abandoned, as Faf du Plessis admitted last week. Steyn has flown home, Nortje never arrived, Ngidi is still nursing a hamstring strain that is expected to keep him out of action until the Afghanistan match next Saturday.
And amidst it all, Rabada is the last of the pacemen standing. He showed that his spirit, and that of his team, is still willing in a heroic but under-rewarded onslaught against India on this ground on Wednesday, but there’s only so much that he can do on his own.
“We have to deal with what we have,” Rabada said. “Unfortunately, we’ve had quite a few problems in this tournament regarding injury. So we’ve had to work our way around it and we’re going to have to work our way around it for the next game. There’s no point in complaining about it.”
The pity for South Africa is that their team could and should be functioning very much as West Indies currently is. A blend of youth and experience doesn’t always gel on the biggest occasions but, with a fair wind, South Africa appeared to have embraced the mentality to make it work, just as West Indies have done – with the barely mobile but ever-grinning Chris Gayle very much to the fore.
Gayle, as is his wont, barely featured in West Indies’ practice. A desultory role as the midfield general in a warm-up game of football, followed by some half-hearted gully catching, and back he went to the dressing room – he’s hit quite enough balls in his career to date, why waste his last remaining detonations for a nets session?
Likewise Russell was lying low while his team-mates did their bit. His knee has been creaking intermittently throughout the World Cup so far, but Estwick had no doubt that he’d be ready to report for duty on Monday morning.
“Andre will be fine,” he said. “Andre is a warrior, he is a soldier. He’s a strong man mentally, you know, and he will be up for the game. He’s been really good for us. When we sat down and had our plans, we didn’t expect him to bowl as much as he’s been doing, but he’s been brilliant, so no problems at all with Andre.”
The contrast with South Africa’s old stagers is stark. As if Steyn’s non-starter of a campaign wasn’t galling enough, Hashim Amla’s game is still under starter’s orders, following the blow to the head he received from Jofra Archer in the opening match, and the void that has created while he gets his game-brain back in order.
All of which has left South Africa scrambling for a plan – any plan – to drag their challenge from one day to the next.
“It’s been very interesting,” said Rabada. “There’s a lot been happening off the field, so it’s a bit of a weird stage for the Proteas and cricket in South Africa. You’ve got guys that don’t have much experience coming in. And you’ve got guys who are approaching the end of their careers. So it is a bit of a mix in that regard.”
Amla’s return to form is surely a pre-requisite if South Africa are to find a route past West Indies and keep a vague handle on their destiny.
But when it comes to those embers of South Africa’s best-laid plans … if anyone can fight West Indies’ rekindled fires of Babylon with intimidatory pace of their own, then Rabada is the only remaining man for the job.
“Am I focussed on their fast bowlers? The batsmen should be focussed on their fast bowlers,” he said. “I’m focussed on their batters because my job is to get their batters out.”
And if not Rabada, then who? South Africa’s campaign is in desperate need of a hero, before another World Cup ends in tears and recrimination. (ESPNCricinfo)