Cape Town – So are these Proteas on the CWC 2019 clawback? Sorry, I’m still a mighty long way from convinced.
While the bowling effort on Saturday was pretty zesty – this was Afghanistan, remember – the way South Africa went about their chase of a humble target of 127 to win at Cardiff still appeared to say so much about a brittle collective psyche in their camp, even as they finally got up and running with a nine-wicket triumph.
That it took them an indulgent 28.4 overs to complete the flimsy task would really only have sent the following message to their remaining four opponents (all frontline, established Test-playing nations) at the tournament: these guys are a shadow of their old selves.
We got the inevitable, reasonably understandable general spin from captain Faf du Plessis afterwards: “Signs of good cricket … peg in the ground … solid in all departments … energy in the field.”
Look, he was hardly going to say: “We’re nervy deadbeats and we know we are.”
Maybe an astonishing turnaround IS just around the corner; perhaps we will be able to look back in a few weeks and realise that this mauling of minnows -- at least in the way it looked on paper -- was, indeed, a catalyst for stirring reinvention.
But at the risk of missing out on a sudden gold rush, I’m not buying into those shares.
As the Proteas all too often poked, rather than power-hit, their way to the target, my overpowering instinct was to align myself with the theme of some cynicism (occasionally overt, sometimes more subtle and implied) of the television commentators calling the Sophia Gardens clash.
“(They’re) playing with fear … playing for places,” observed Simon Doull, the former New Zealand seam bowler, in what was an associated shot in the arm for the Black Caps and their supporters, as unbeaten NZ are the Proteas’ next, do-or-die foes at Edgbaston on Wednesday.
One of South Africa’s most iconic past captains, Graeme Smith, clearly also didn’t detect any special sense of urgency (the Proteas badly needed to hike their tottering net run rate) in the “chase”, lamenting that they were missing out on “an opportunity to command yourself … to say ‘we are here’.”
Meanwhile the neutral former England Test captain Mike Atherton noted: “We haven’t yet seen the energy and desperation about South Africa that I recall from four years ago (CWC 2015, where they were narrowly beaten semi-finalists).”
The broad tone from the pundits was obvious: This is a team still battling rather grimly to rediscover itself.
Extremely central to the strangely conservative nature of the Proteas’ innings, it must be said, was the veteran, now 178-cap Hashim Amla, who badly needed a decent stay at the crease … and made debatably sure he got it.
His place under a gathering cloud (again, though there have been others of late), the 36-year-old dug his heels in, as if in a Test-match mindset, very seldom picking up his tempo and his normally dynamic body language and foot and hand movement at the crease still appearing light years off the levels we recall of his wonderful heyday.
It is highly unusual, for a major power in an essentially humble ODI chase-down against a minor nation, to have one of their opening batsmen play right through the innings -- umpteen wickets always in hand -- at a personal strike rate of below 50.
Amla’s career strike rate in the 50-overs format, remember, is only slightly below 90 (88.75).
Saturday’s innings only aggravated, rather than it allayed, any thoughts – they certainly exist -- that he is a profoundly waning force in international cricket.
If the vigil does serve as a catalyst for the great right-hander belatedly exploding into vibrant action at the World Cup, then all well and good.
Again, though, I wouldn’t count too heavily on it … not on current look and feel to the legendary figure.
From a team perspective, we will be far more entitled to hype up the Proteas’ chances of a miracle comeback for semi-final qualification if they beat the Black Caps, whether majestically or industrially, in Birmingham.
Considering that presently less-than-juggernaut Sri Lanka and Pakistan would be next up on their roster, the prospect of getting to the desired, almost certainly necessary five wins (Australia are their closing round-robin foes) would begin to look a tad less than Mission Impossible.
Right now things still teeter so precariously, don’t you think?
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing