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Feature

South Africa look to turn a new leaf while closing out turbulent ODI Super League chapter

Netherlands will look to repeat their Adelaide heroics from last year with inclement weather likely to play spoilsport

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
30-Mar-2023
Temba Bavuma and Quinton de Kock run between the wickets, South Africa vs West Indies, 2nd ODI, East London, March 18, 2023

Quinton de Kock, along with eight team-mates, will miss an IPL game to try and help South Africa directly qualify for the ODI World Cup  •  Gallo Images/Getty Images

It's ending as it began. Sort of.
On November 6, 2022, South Africans awoke in disbelief to the news that their team had been booted out of the T20 World Cup by Netherlands. No disrespect to Netherlands, but it was not a game many would have expected them to win, especially after South Africa dominated Bangladesh, beat India and were two points away from a semi-final. At a time when South Africa had many lows to choose from, that loss was the lowest.
Temba Bavuma, South Africa's beleaguered and now-former T20 captain, was so dejected by the defeat, he could barely look up at the reporters asking him questions. Mark Boucher, South Africa's outgoing coach, avoided at least half of that by heading to the United States on holiday and not coming home to address an angst-ridden media and equally annoyed fans. That was Boucher's last assignment and there was a growing consensus that he had left the team in a mess.
In Tests, although South Africa beat India at home, they also lost a series in England. In T20Is, they had failed to make the knockouts in two consecutive tournaments. But it was their ODI record which was the biggest blight on Boucher. He left them in the 11th spot on the World Cup Super League table, out of the automatic qualification zone, and with the third-worst ODI record among South Africa's 11 coaches.
Of course, South Africa's string of poor 50-over results cannot be blamed on Boucher alone but listen between the lines and it's clear something was amiss. After the West Indies Tests, which was Shukri Conrad's first as red-ball coach, Bavuma spoke about feeling more supported by Conrad than he had at any time since he was coached domestically by Enoch Nkwe. "I definitely feel fully backed. I haven't had this feeling for a while," he said.
Kagiso Rabada, in an interview with South Africa's Sunday Times described the last three years as "incredibly tense," thanks largely to off-field issues like administrative meltdown and the Social Justice and Nation-Building Commission, and said he "got the sense that changed" with the appointment of Nkwe as director of cricket and Conrad and Rob Walter as coaches.
It's for Walter to get the ODI team back on track and he has been given a wide berth. CSA has placed no performance expectations on him for the 2023 World Cup, other than getting there. For that, he needs things to go better than they have in ODIs for most of the last three years when a combination of selection issues, off-field events, and scheduling all conspired against South Africa.
Let's go back to April 2021. For a home ODI series against Pakistan, South Africa's first-choice players were only partly available because of the IPL. Three months later, in Ireland, their first match was rained out. Then, they played an ODI the day after violent riots swept through South Africa's Kwa-Zulu Natal province, where many squad members had family and friends, and lost. Later that year, they lost a series in Sri Lanka and had another washout, against Netherlands, before the remainder of the series was postponed as a new variant of Covid-19 was came up. Last winter, it was announced that South Africa would forfeit three games against Australia in order to have their players available for the SA20. In between all that, South Africa swept Australia and India 3-0 in series that did not count towards the World Cup Super League.
So here we are. South Africa are now in a must-win situation against the team they were in a must-win situation against four months ago and lost, and they can still barely explain how that happened. "It was just a really bad day for us as players," Quinton de Kock said. "It was sad for us as players. We've just got to make sure we rock up and not take things for granted."
South Africa cannot afford to incur any penalties with things like the over rate because that will result in points being docked on the Super League table, and they have got a record for running out of time. They lost a point as recently as last month, have lost two points overall and are one of only five teams to fall foul of this rule. "Rob told the boys make sure it doesn't happen again," de Kock said. "It's a controllable thing."
What isn't controllable are the other results South Africa need to go their way. Even if they beat Netherlands 2-0, they are not guaranteed a spot at the World Cup and still need to hope Ireland don't win more than one game against Bangladesh when they host them in England. Ireland have chosen the venue to maximise their chances of playing in better weather conditions than they are likely to get at home. Had South Africa thought of that, they may not have chosen Benoni and Johannesburg as the venues to play these two matches. Showers are forecast for both venues on game days, though it's typical on the Highveld that these are short and sharp and at the Wanderers, at least, the drainage is world class. Getting a full game at Willowmoore Park on Friday could prove more challenging and the chances of an interrupted game are real.
The shorter it gets, the more Netherlands may remind South Africa of November 6 although Scott Edwards was not too bullish about it. "They're a world-class side with a lot of world-class players," he said. And Cricket South Africa has done everything in their power to keep it that way.
For the first time ever, CSA utilised the contracting clause that allows them to hold players back from overseas leagues to fulfil national duty. Nine players - Rabada, de Kock, David Miller, Lungi Ngidi, Aiden Markram, Anrich Nortje, Heinrich Klaasen, Marco Jansen, Sisanda Magala - will miss their first IPL games, despite the apparent unhappiness of team-owners as South Africa throw their all at Netherlands, who are depleted.
Colin Ackermann, Bas de Leede and Brandon Glover have all been released for the start of the county season while Roelof van der Merwe has withdrawn from the touring party for personal reasons. Netherlands are also without their coach, Ryan Cook, who, ironically, is at the IPL but they have roped in as much reinforcement as they could. Former South Africa Test opener Heino Kuhn has joined them as assistant coach while former South Africa head coach Russell Domingo is part of their backroom staff. Together, they aim to provide some intel on what can be done to inflict a more serious defeat on South Africa than the one they managed at the T20 World Cup. "They've brought a lot of knowledge about the players and conditions over here," Edwards said, but his general demeanour was far from upbeat.
While South Africa's main worry is whether they can avoid a qualifying tournament in Zimbabwe in June - and de Kock said he is going to "try my absolute best not to go to Zim for the qualifiers" - Netherlands are concerned about what comes after that. The World Cup Super League will cease to exist after this edition. For teams such as Netherlands and Ireland, the tournament provided an opportunity for regular cricket against top-tier opposition and there are concerns that without it, their game time will shrink and the gains they have made now will be lost.
"It's been massive for us. If you look back at the squad before the Super League, it was a transition period and since then some of the performances these guys have put in has been massive for Dutch cricket," Edwards said. "We don't know exactly what the one-day format is going to hold for us from now."
To an extent, neither do South Africa. In theory and on paper, it's unthinkable that they won't be at the World Cup later this year, whether through the direct route or qualification. But the same sentiment hung thick in the air when South Africans went to bed on November 5, 2022. It was unthinkable that they would lose to Netherlands in the T20 World Cup. And that is exactly what happened.
De Kock said they're "pretty much the same" team now, but "maybe slightly better."
"We are trying to play an aggressive brand of cricket but we also want to be very clever in the way we go about things and make sure we choose the right options," he said. It's a work in progress and we will fail from time to time."
South Africans will hope not this time.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's correspondent for South Africa and women's cricket