This World Cup is finally warming up. After the hosts said hello with a big win in the opener, one-way traffic flowed for three games before the subcontinent showed up through Bangladesh and Pakistan, a match late but here nonetheless. Now the stage is set for the first proper fisticuffs and its about time.
South Africa, staggering in from two drunken days out in London, have sobered up enough for their premier paceman, Kagiso Rabada, to spit at the face of the team that even the English and even the Australians (deep down) think will win this tournament: India. In an interview done several weeks ago, Rabada called Indian captain Virat Kohli “phenomenal,” but labelled some of his reactions as “immature,” and “angry,” and as behaviour he just doesn’t get. Kohli will have the chance to explain at the Rose Bowl but despite the name, there is expected to be no love lost.
Rabada’s opinion appears to have been recently formed, as recently as the last IPL match he played. There, Rabada noted Kohli “can’t take the abuse,” when it’s given back to him.
What better way to ensure there is plenty of talk when the two teams meet in Southampton, where there should be a separate scoreboard to keep track of how many words are said and which ones provoke the most heated response.
Let’s be honest, both Kohli and Rabada will be among the top-scorers.Kagiso Rabada. (AFP)
For all Rabada’s finger-pointing, he is an angry young man himself. Just ask Steve Smith, or Ben Stokes or the ICC’s demerit system. The trouble is that Rabada has not looked ready to rumble at all in this tournament or even this year. So far, 2019 is his least successful in ODIs, with 15 wickets from 11 games at the highest average of his career, 33.13.
He was more successful in the IPL where he would have finished with the purple cap but was sent home with a back niggle. Pre-tournament talk was that the situation was delicate but Rabada recovered in time for the first match and just as well - Dale Steyn and now Lungi Ngidi have been out - but he has lacked incision in his opening spells, particularly. If that’s making him upset, Rabada isn’t showing it so his coach Ottis Gibson took it upon himself to try and stoke the flames.
“He’s not taking wickets like we know he can. I’m sure he’s hurting from that, because when I speak to him he doesn’t just want to be the best bowler in South Africa, he wants to be the best bowler in the world,” Gibson said. “When you look around the world and see the impact someone like Jofra Archer is having, I’m sure he’ll want to leave his own mark on the World Cup.”
Nothing like a bit of comparison to rankle, huh?
At the other end of the anger games, is Kohli. He has only had one opportunity to lose his cool so far, and he took it. When pushed about why he thought India and Pakistan don’t play bilateral series against each other. “My opinion doesn’t matter,” Kohli snarled, before returning to the Team India camp where things appear happier than ever.
Not only have India had six days more than any other team to prepare for their first match, they’ve been able to watch three of their challengers play twice. England, Pakistan and South Africa are already well into their campaigns and all of them have shown how they can be beaten. Maybe India were watching, or maybe they were just having a good time paint-balling and picking up high-profile fans who all bow to Kohli. Harry Kane, the England football captain, called Kohli a “great guy and brilliant sportsman,” while Thomas Mueller said he was “especially,” crossing fingers for Virat Kohli, who apparently supports the German team.
South Africa have not made nearly as many friends and worse, have lost some of those they already had. Their own former players are turning them, particularly Jonty Rhodes and Herschelle Gibbs whose Twitter accounts are hysteric with shout criticism from Rhodes’ incitement that it was “time to panic,” twenty overs into the Bangladesh innings to Gibbs calling out Faf du Plessis for sending out “all the right signals to the opposition and lifting their confidence levels,” by saying the World Cup is not won on how teams’ start.
Neither Rhodes nor Gibbs has been close enough to the set-up for their comments to sting as much as say, Graeme Smith’s or Jacques Kallis’ but both Rhodes and Gibbs serve as a reminder of the other aspect of South Africa’s game that is going a little awry: their fielding.
Rabada was front and centre of one of their blunders, when he over-ran a chance off Mahmudullah at deep square, attempted a Stokes’ grab, spilt it and the ball went for four. He looked fairly furious but overall, South Africa didn’t even get het up about how they have been surpassed even in the area where they used to set the standards. JP Duminy sheepishly said something about self-reflection and embracing external pressures when asked about the lapses in the field against Bangladesh but didn’t go any further.
The closest South Africa have come to expressing anger is through their captain Faf du Plessis who promised there would be harsh words but maintained the World Cup is far from over. That much is true. South Africa are only two games in, in a nine-match league. They can probably afford to lose three and if that happens to be the first three, it will include two of their toughest opponents. What they cannot afford to do, is appear to be giving up already.
At home, supporters are angry with the way South Africa have approached this event, laissez-faire and laughing, saying that win or lose, things remain the same. They are angry that the batsmen have not shown more staying power and that the bowlers lack the bite they are so renowned for.
They are angry that the old enemy England with the new young sensation Archer humbled their batsmen and that the team who should have been beaten, Bangladesh, stunned South Africa with their most complete ODI performance to date. Imagine how angry they will be if Kohli and his band of merry men do something similar.
Imagine how angry they will be if Rabada and his pack of wounded pacers don’t respond accordingly.
For the record, Rabada has dismissed only Kohli twice in the 11 ODIs they have played against each other. Both times in the series South Africa won in India in 2015, just before Rabada’s Test debut. Both times Kohli was caught behind. Both times Kohli was chasing a ball he could have left. The first was going down leg, the second full and wide outside off.
This time Rabada has dangled one within smashing distance in the media.
Will Kohli reach for it?