Can the Proteas win the 2019 World Cup? It's complicated

General view of players warming up before the start of day 3 of the 1st Castle Lager Test match between South Africa and Pakistan at SuperSport Park on December 28, 2018 in Pretoria, South Africa.
General view of players warming up before the start of day 3 of the 1st Castle Lager Test match between South Africa and Pakistan at SuperSport Park on December 28, 2018 in Pretoria, South Africa.
Image: Christiaan Kotze/Gallo Images

Can South Africa win the World Cup in England this year‚ and so end the most puzzling omission from the only honours board that matters in one-day cricket?

Note the subtle scaling down of that question’s inherent expectations. Time was when South Africans would ask‚ “Will they win it?”

Heading into the 2019 World Cup there are no straight answers‚ and not only because too many South Africans have been shot in this movie too many times before.

They’ve seen the team they support go to seven World Cups‚ often as the favourites to win the damned thing.

And they’ve seen seven teams return empty handed‚ often having played so far below themselves it hurt.

You have to wonder whether some of South Africa’s players have thought of packing a loser’s suitcase‚ as Floyd Patterson did the night before his first heavyweight world title fight against Sonny Liston in Chicago in September 1962.

“And so‚ with losing on his mind‚ Floyd made arrangements‚” David Remnick wrote in “King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero”.

“He carefully stuffed his bag and an attache case with clothes‚ food‚ and a disguise — a custom-made beard and mustache. If he won‚ of course‚ he’d meet the press and head back to the hotel for a victory party. If not‚ he would leave Comiskey Park in his false whiskers and drive through the night to his training camp in upstate New York.

“That was always the way it was with Floyd. Fear‚ especially the fear of losing‚ ate at him. He was entitled to call himself the toughest man on the planet‚ yet he didn't much believe it.

“There were those who wondered if Floyd was beyond sensitive‚ if he was a neurotic in shorts. Some of the reporters from England took to calling him Freud Patterson.”

Names and places could be changed to protect the guilty‚ but we can all understand how South Africa’s World Cup teams have had much in common with Floyd Patterson.

What are their chances of escaping the analogy this time? If you have a look at their recent record‚ not great.

South Africa played 17 ODIs in 2018‚ winning nine and losing the rest. That sounds like a pass-mark‚ if only just.

Closer to the truth is that three of those games were against Zimbabwe — and thus won — and should be removed from the equation in any clear-eyed analysis.

That narrows the numbers to played 14‚ won six‚ lost eight: not quite so average anymore.

More happily‚ South Africa’s most recent foray in the format was in Australia in November‚ when they won the series 2-1.

In the first game‚ in Perth‚ Andile Phehlukwayo took three wickets and Dale Steyn‚ Lungi Ngidi and Imran Tahir two each to set up victory by six wickets.

Add Kagiso Rabada‚ who went wicketless that day‚ to the mix and you have as skilled and threatening an arsenal of bowlers as can be compiled anywhere in the game.

Australia won by seven runs in Adelaide‚ but David Miller’s 51‚ only his third half-century in 11 completed innings at that point‚ offered hope that one of the most devastating middle order players in cricket was getting back to his best.

So Miller proved in Hobart‚ where he hammered 139 off 108 balls to help South Africa win by 40 runs.

He and Faf du Plessis‚ who made 125‚ shared 252 for the fourth wicket in a stand that endured from the 16th over to the 49th.

In the paragraphs immediately above lay much of the answer to the question posed at the top of this piece.

Every successful South Africa team will get more from their bowlers than other sides‚ and the current crop — old and new — are fit for that purpose.

Batting frailty has been the story of most of South Africa’s failures and must be avoided if this World Cup is not to be added to the sad list of those that have gone before.

Teams recover when top orders crash‚ as they will do on England’s seaming pitches when cricket’s best bowlers are in action.

But rarely does a side win after their middle order have followed the top three back to the dressingroom cheaply and quickly.

So South Africa will need players like Du Plessis and Miller to do‚ with impressive frequency‚ something like what they did in Hobart. Good that they have those players.

Thing is‚ South Africa have always had the players to win the World Cup. What they have lacked is the team.

It’s that simple because sport‚ for all its pretence to complication‚ is that simple.

Either you make room for a trophy in your suitcase or you pack a fake moustache.

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