When the Proteas look back on their dismal 2019 ICC Cricket World Cup campaign, the regret will be fuelled by the inevitable What If? questions. What if Hashim Amla hadn’t been hit on the head in the defeat to England? What if AB de Villiers had been in the squad? What if Dale Steyn’s shoulder had held up? What if Lungi Ngidi hadn’t tweaked his hamstring in the defeat to Bangladesh? And so on and so on.
Injuries, individual errors, bad form and plain bad luck aside, there is another What If? question that deserves some attention.
What if the draw had been different?
The structure of the 2019 ICC Cricket World Cup is such that each of the 10 teams plays the other nine once, with the top four on the final points table progressing to the semifinals. Couldn’t be fairer than that, right?
Well… it depends on the order of events.
If you could choose your fixture list, you’d want to start with some relatively easy matches, get some points on the board, and then – once you’ve all but guaranteed your top-four spot – you’d know you could afford to lose a couple of your last three or four games. A soft start would allow your players to get used to the tournament atmosphere and the playing environment, building form and momentum for when the competition reaches its business end.
You would not want to start by playing against the tournament’s top-ranked teams (including the hosts and holders), because you’d know that if things didn’t go your way, you’d end up in the exact opposite position to what was described above. Nobody wants to go into the last few Group Stage games, confidence shattered, under the intense pressure of knowing that you couldn’t afford a single slip-up.
Yet that second scenario is exactly what has befallen South Africa.
Following their defeat to New Zealand at Edgbaston, the Proteas now need to win every one of their remaining games, and count on the teams around them either losing or having the majority of their games rained out. (Hope springs eternal in the current English summer.)
That New Zealand match was a study in contrasts of confidence – and one couldn’t help wondering if that wasn’t, at least in part, down to their contrasting fixture lists.
Here’s New Zealand’s list of Group Stage opponents, in order: Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, India, South Africa, West Indies, Pakistan, Australia, England. Now translate those into their official ICC Men’s ODI Team Rankings on the day of the match against South Africa: 9th, 8th, 10th, 2nd, 4th, 7th, 6th, 5th, 1st.
South Africa, meanwhile, faced a more daunting start: England, Bangladesh, India, West Indies, Afghanistan, New Zealand, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Australia. Or: 1st, 8th, 2nd, 7th, 10th, 3rd, 6th, 9th, 5th.
Excuses? No. Sour grapes? Not at all. After all, the What If? list in that first paragraph could just as easily include a number of uncomfortable Ja But questions.
Ja, but South Africa were flailing at 29 for 2 against West Indies when the weather gods intervened to gift them their first point of the tournament. Ja, but the Proteas knew that they could afford to lose to either England or India or New Zealand… they just couldn’t afford to lose to all of them. Ja, but even the friendliest fixture list couldn’t compensate for slopping fielding work.
Truth be told, the Proteas haven’t once looked like a semifinal team at this tournament.
But you can’t help wondering how different their 2019 ICC World Cup campaign might have been if they’d had a kinder, gentler fixture list to help them find their feet. DM
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