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Match Analysis

South Africa's nth grade meltdown

In a crackling atmosphere that ought to have got any competitor's juices flowing, the vibes they projected were simply meekness and passivity

Much of the talk around South Africa in the build-up to this World Cup had been of their chilled-out mentality, their refusal to allow the hype and emotion of another shot at The Big One stress them out. But at The Oval, in a crackling atmosphere that ought to have got any competitor's juices flowing, the vibes they projected were simply meekness and passivity. They played precisely as if they were an accident waiting to happen
And now they truly are. With no wins from two outings, and with a rested and focused India waiting to open their campaign in Southampton on Wednesday, South Africa desperately need to get active before it's too late. But with the hopes of Dale Steyn's return to fitness now offset by a worrying hamstring strain for Lungi Ngidi, and Hashim Amla's concussion absence rumbling on in the background, the faux-serenity of their lead-in can now officially go hang.
As Jonty Rhodes put it on Twitter (and this after just 20 overs of day's events had unfolded): "Ok; time to panic."
WATCH on Hotstar - Bangladesh smash 54 in four overs (Available to viewers in India only)
There's a word for all this that dares not speak its name. But like the England football team's 20-year hang-up over penalty shoot-outs, the c-word is a condition that can only be cured by head-on confrontation. Every perceived moment of frailty feeds directly into the national narrative, to the extent that you end up knowing - whether you are sitting in the stands or on the sofa - that they know that you know that they are about to mess it up again.
All of which makes it so surprising that, of all the aspects of South Africa's play that they could have used to project their authority into the contest, they allowed their fielding to be so atypically nth grade.
To be clear, this was a matter of intent, not execution. According to ESPNcricinfo's own fielding statistics, they were actually no more or less sharp in terms of actual run-stopping than they had been against England in the opening match on this same ground on Thursday - they leaked 17 "saveable" runs in the former, and 19 today.
But there was a strut to South Africa's play on that first occasion - epitomised by Faf du Plessis's funky decision to throw the ball to Imran Tahir for the tournament's opening over, and the richness of the dividend that Jonny Bairstow's wicket brought. Exceeding the standards that they set themselves might not have been possible, but matching them - in the manner that Rhodes himself did so frequently throughout his career - surely needed to be a pre-requisite.
Instead, South Africa's captain, Faf du Plessis, was left struggling to explain how his team's standards had managed to atrophy so disastrously.
"I think that happens naturally when you are in a bad position," he said. "I've played a lot of cricket and, for every single team that I've played for around the world, it's the same effect. Once a partnership starts developing, and things in the field are not going your way, the natural thing that happens to players is they fall off a little bit.
"The shoulders drop a little bit, the body language is not as strong. It happens in every single team and there's always conversations around how long and how well you can keep doing that."
Accidents happen, of course. But few accidents on a cricket field are quite as humiliating as a failed long barrier. That's what Chris Morris achieved at the start of Tahir's second over - dropping to one knee at short backward square, and allowing a delicate paddle sweep from Mushfiqur Rahim to hop innocently through the gate and away to the rope for four. Morris was later guilty of a police-escort-style jog to track another steadily travelling boundary. No dive, no intent, just a mounting sense of dread.
Eoin Morgan made a curious but revealing point during the post-match presentations on Thursday. England, he said, were always looking to "experiment" in the field - by which he meant their onus is to attack the ball, challenge themselves to succeed in pulling off a remarkable match-defining moment, even if doing so increases their chances of failing in the short term.
And of course, in that opening fixture, they succeeded wholeheartedly in pretty much every endeavour. Ben Stokes' iconic catch stemmed, in part, from the fact that he had strayed out of position on the boundary's edge … but a fact that, in turn, almost certainly contributed to the speed with which he reached and released the ball that ran out Dwayne Pretorius.
Perhaps Kagiso Rabada had something similar in mind when standing in the exact same spot in the outfield this afternoon - but almost certainly not, to judge by the efforts around him. Despite back-pedalling frantically as Mahmudullah top-edged his slog-sweep, he was in no position to clutch the chance as it plopped through his hands and over the rope.
In the build-up to the Champions League final, Mauricio Pochettino had his Tottenham players walking on hot coals and telling boring stories in an excited voice to highlight the importance of mind over matter. And if that didn't have quite the impact that he might have hoped for on the night, the intent was plain - to project a sense of order even when events seem to be spinning out of control.
Bangladesh, to be honest, weren't exactly faultless in the field either. Their groundwork was scruffy, and at least two outfield catches went begging - one dropped, and one non-contested at wide long-off as Rassie van der Dussen fought with initial valiance to keep his side in touch. But their errors, broadly speaking, were the upshot of nervous energy. It was a more forgivable way to fail, because - as Bangladesh proved with a flourish at the death - it offered a far greater chance to succeed.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. He tweets at @miller_cricket