Oh, to be as carefree as the men from the Caribbean! To lope languidly off the Hampshire Bowl outfield, even as the umpteenth downpour interrupts training. To stroll back across in the sunshine moments later, scouting out all the places the ball can be hit in a days’ time. To talk and play cricket, controversy-free.
Sure, it’s too simplistic to speak of West Indies as footloose and fortune-filled because there is much more to their cricket than laughter and luck, but they may still be the last team an angst-riddled South Africa want to run into on Monday. Especially if there are clouds overhead.
The West Indies quicks have twice showed how they can take advantage of conditions and South Africa’s line-up have on three occasions not showed that they can deal with the opposition attack.
Supposedly, there is one person who can solve that problem but South Africa were hoping his name would not grab the headlines in the way that it has.
The spectre of AB de Villiers will haunt South Africa’s World Cup campaign, more so after the collapses against England and Bangladesh (7 for 65 and 5 for 85), the slow-go against India and the totals which are starting to creep up as the competition grows legs. Pakistan were a shave short of 350 against England last week, who responded by inching towards 400 against Bangladesh.(Getty Images)
South Africa, too have scored that many runs, but not since October 2015, when de Villiers was still part of their XI.
We can pull examples like that out of everywhere because we think of de Villiers as the wind around which South Africa’s team whirls. But we must remember that his flags have been flying half-mast for long enough.
South Africa have moved on, as any team would, and they’ve done so relatively successfully. Ottis Gibson was at great pains to point out that South Africa have won all five of the five ODI series they’ve played since de Villiers retired. While that is correct, those results must be taken in context. Two of those series were against ninth-ranked Sri Lanka and one against 11th-placed Zimbabwe. The other two rubbers, against Australia and Pakistan, were competitive, at 1-1 and 2-2 respectively before South Africa won in deciding final fixtures.
By contrast, West Indies have not won one of their last five series in the same time, and that includes three defeats at the hands of Bangladesh. Their best result was a drawn series at home against England earlier this year. But, if there’s one team to whom form barely matters, its West Indies. And if there’s one team to whom fights with the board barely matter, it's West Indies.
And if there’s one team who can manage players coming in and out or opting for T20 leagues over international duty and then deciding they actually want both, its West Indies.
South Africa are just not that kind of team. They like plans (and we’ve heard about A, B, C and so on at this tournament) and structure. They like order. They do not like the fact that their own cricketers’ association has taken the governing body to court over the proposed domestic restructure, they do not like the injuries that are haunting their almost every tour and they especially do not like the player exodus, mostly to Kolpak deals but in de Villiers’ case, to self-imposed exile which also wanted a self-orchestrated ending.(Getty Images)
De Villiers has done wrong by his team-mates and the country’s cricket fans in thinking that he, like Chris Gayle or Dwayne Bravo, could just do as he pleased. De Villiers might be Mr 360 but he is not the universe boss. And even Gayle knows when getting in line is the only place to be.
We can’t really be sure if Gayle training or observing when he lumbered around the Hampshire Bowl on Sunday. “Chris is Chris,” Roddy Estwick, West Indies assistant coach said when asked if Gayle as fully fit, “He’s got years of experience. He will know what he needs to do to come out tomorrow and execute.”
That’s the kind of statement that should be made about de Villiers. He also has years of experience but does not seem to know what he needs to do to execute and manage his professional relationships. Selection convenor Linda Zondi’s said he “begged,” de Villiers not to retire in May last year, but the man’s mind was made up. His coach, Ottis Gibson, did not go that far.
“I don’t think you should have to beg a guy to play for his country but I did tell him I thought he was making a bad decision,” Gibson said.
It was Gibson who de Villiers called on either the night before or the morning of the World Cup squad announcement, asking to be considered. “I told him it was too late,” Gibson said. And rightly so.
Instead, its time for others to take centre stage in this clash between the mellow and the mentally frazzled.
If all had gone well (and it hasn’t), this could also have been a clash between two of the tournament’s best bowling attacks but Dale Steyn and Lungi Ngidi’s injuries has made this instead about how an aging Hashim Amla copes with an enthusiastic Oshane Thomas, how a spent JP Dunminy will deal with the spice of Sheldon Cottrell and whether David Miller’s last few chances will come at the hands of a new crop of West Indian legends-in-the-making, as they like to think of themselves.
It’s South Africa’s reputation against the West Indies’ rise and it is going to be anything but carefree.