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South Africa forgo gestures and lose plot - but at least cricket is back

South Africa played like a team intent on silencing the noise around them but still came up second to England once again

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
Quinton de Kock pulls through the leg side  •  Getty Images

Quinton de Kock pulls through the leg side  •  Getty Images

International cricket is back. In South Africa. And by South Africa. But England are still the masters of the white-ball.
As recently as 12 days ago, this series was in danger of not happening and CSA was in danger of having its status as the national body of cricket in this country stripped away. The sports minister was ready to step in and potentially prevent them from fielding a team that could call itself South Africa.
As recently as Thursday, South African cricket's chief medical officer warned that if a significant number of players contracted Covid-19, matches could be called off. Two of the 24-man squad had returned positive tests so his fears were not entirely unfounded.
And here we are. For the first time in almost eight months, the South Africa men's team got on the park and it was clear they had something to prove. Until the 17th over of England's innings, South Africa played like a team intent on silencing the noise. Like a team that wanted to end the wittering around themselves and their culture, the whispers around the administration and the crisis. And even in that over that cost 28 runs and put England on the path to victory, South Africa still played in a way that amplified the sound of bat on ball. Finally. There was cricket.
In the lead up to this series, the conversation has been about sportsmen and social justice especially when it comes to racial prejudice. Given the history of Apartheid, colonialism and slavery, South Africa could be one of the countries that could best understands and embodies the antiracist doctrine, but it is still grappling with recent schisms and trying to find solutions.
CSA's attempt was to put up two large banners with the message "We stand in solidarity against racism and gender-based violence" and drape them over stands at opposite ends of the ground. But on the day that New Zealand and West Indies took a knee and Australia and India formed a barefoot circle, the absence of any gesture from South Africa was glaring. They are the only one of the six teams that were in action who have not symbolically shown their support for the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, even though they insist they are working on living out a doctrine of equality.
On top of that, they also have other causes to be concerned about. The first 16 days of next month are dedicated annually as days of activism against gender-based violence and both teams wore black armbands to mourn those who lose their lives to abuse and those who have died from Covid-19. In South Africa, the latter has risen to more than 21,000 and with infection rates rising, there are fears of many more. Ten minutes before the start of play, flags were frantically lowered to half-mast, where they should have been flying since Wednesday. Among the many things that needed to be done as Newlands got ready for international cricket, it seemed someone remembered that one just in time.
As South Africa lined up to sing their national anthem, directly in front of the SuperSport commentary team, they could hear JP Duminy being asked about BLM and supporting the activist sportsman. An aura of awkwardness settled over the opening salvo and when the final chords of "Nkosi Sikelel'i Afrika" rung out, and everyone remained standing, it felt as though something had been left unsaid, or undone. History will judge South Africa's (in)action and assess how well they have applied the principles of inclusion they have committed to.
It may also see this season as one in which South Africa built on the foundation stone's laid last summer, when a new coaching regime took over. Their tenure showed promise, with a Test victory but it was clear they needed time. The longest off-season since readmission may not have been exactly what they had in mind but it gave them room to reflect and reimagine the kind of team they want to be.
We need more than one match to be able to see what their new approach of "aggressive, but smart," means but we can already make some deductions. Faf du Plessis best demonstrated it with the bat when he twice went close to hitting one of the Egyptian geese that have made the Newlands outfield their home, but twice evaded them. While Harry the Hadeda, the avian superstar from England's last tour, was nowhere to be found two adult and four teenage geese occupied positions from the covers to long-on, walking in to almost every ball and scurrying away as soon as it was hit.
Du Plessis played around them and in the same vein as he had been doing at the IPL. In the fifth over, he changed the tone of South Africa's start from unsure, on a pitch where the ball was not coming on as quickly as might have been expected, to in control when he buried a ball in the construction site, smoked the new one down the ground and on to the railway stand, where the absence of fans meant the few in the ground could hear the ping as it hit a flagpole, and then mowed it through midwicket.
The way George Linde, the debutant, was used was the other example of how the new style of play may reveal itself. Linde was tasked with opening the bowling and rewarded his captain with a wicket off the second ball and then switched ends to claim another as Rabada took a stunning low catch. South Africa seldom give a spinner or a new player that level of responsibility but Linde plays his franchise cricket here and has the experience of 81 domestic T20s so they trusted him and it paid off.
More's the pity that Linde did not have his home crowd cheering him on but these are the times. Newlands is not ready for visitors anyway as the construction of an office block continues. And who knows what commentary might have provided late in the game when, with England needing 84 runs from 48 balls, Quinton de Kock turned to Heinrich Klaasen to bowl at Ben Stokes. That was South Africa saying they thought they were so far ahead they could do anything. And they were wrong. Not aggressive, and definitely not smart.
Klaasen conceded 14 runs, before de Kock went back to his premier spinner Tabraiz Shamsi. In hindsight, he should have let Shamsi bowl his full quota of four overs, although even that may not have stopped what happened later. Beuran Hendricks conceded 28 runs, including eight wides in an over where he lost control.
Some will question why Anrich Nortje, who has just come off a fantastic IPL, didn't play. Perhaps South Africa thought the pitch would better suit those who take pace off the ball - it looked that way when England was bowling. Perhaps there were transformation targets to consider, which could have been solved in other ways.
Or perhaps still it's that England, who are unbeaten in seven T20 series, are a bloody good team, who bat deep and back themselves until the very end. There is no better opposition to return to international action against. Welcome back, England. Welcome back, international cricket.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent