ICC CRICKET WORLD CUP 2019
Domingo remembers March 24, 2015 like it was yesterday ©Getty
Four years on from the match that has come to define a generation of South African cricket, one moment still stands out clearly for Russell Domingo. It was late at night on 24 March 2015, the air still crisp and moist from the rain that had extended South Africa’s semifinal with New Zealand, and the Proteas coach was seated in nervous silence at Eden Park. Right in front of him, by the fine-leg boundary, a hamstrung Dale Steyn had just dived full length to save three runs in the penultimate over of the match.
South Africa needed to defend 18 off 8 to win the World Cup semi-final, when Steyn turned around to spot his coach on the balcony and mouthed: “Coach, don’t worry, we’ve got this… We’ve got this.”
“He was very calm in the way he was thinking before he bowled that final over, his plans were all set,” Domingo recalls to Cricbuzz. The former coach describes implicitly believing that ‘they had this’ until Daniel Vettori and Grant Elliott brought the equation down to 5 off 2 balls. And then, “as if from a movie scene”, with one swish of his bat, Elliott sent South Africa’s players and their followers tumbling.
On Wednesday (June 19) South Africa will face off against New Zealand in what is effectively their third straight World Cup knockout game against the Black Caps. It was New Zealand who did for them in the quarterfinals in 2011, leaving a hopeful Proteas side haunted by an astonishing collapse, and it was New Zealand who ended their dreams in 2015. South Africa may be just halfway through their round robin games in England, but having lost three and seen another game washed out, defeat to New Zealand at Edgbaston would effectively spell the end of another campaign.
Given the manner in which they have played their cricket in this tournament it would be a shock to everyone if South Africa turned things around. And on reflection, it is worth revisiting that night in Auckland to see the scars that South African cricket has carried from that tournament into this one.
“The players took a long time to recover from that loss emotionally” ©Getty
In many ways, 2015 represented a high-water mark in South Africa’s 50-over cricket. Domingo notes his side was perhaps only a true all-rounder at No.7 short of matching Hansie Cronje’s batch of 1999 for versatility. “A lot of players at that 2015 World Cup were at their peak of their careers,” he says. “Guys like AB de Villiers, Steyn, Morne Morkel, Hashim Amla, Faf du Plessis, Rilee Rossouw. We were really on top of our game with players at good stages in their careers.
“Going into the tournament we were ranked No.1. We had a formidable line-up and we thought there were about two or three serious contenders to the title. Australia were the team that looked the most balanced, but we had beaten them in a tri-series final in Zimbabwe so we felt that, on our day, we could beat Australia. We had beaten New Zealand in New Zealand in an ODI series. We’d beaten West Indies.”
Although South Africa endured some early-tournament jitters against India and Pakistan, they purred into gear against lesser opposition in the group and appeared to be hitting form at the right time. In the quarterfinals they won their first ever World Cup knockout game when they dispatched Sri Lanka by nine wickets. The manner and margin of victory against a decent side instilled a renewed sense of belief that was reflected in the journal entries in the diary that de Villiers passed around. The ghosts of World Cup knockouts were considered buried forever.
“It was AB’s idea for guys to put down their thoughts on a daily basis, what they were thinking,” says Domingo. “The book went around the team, everybody chipped in and contributed at certain stages about how they were feeling at the event. There was a great feeling after the quarterfinal. We had a great chance, lots of positive energy.”
It was generally assumed that the same team would play New Zealand in the semifinal till de Villiers received a call at 5.30pm on the eve of the game – an hour before the team meeting – to inform him that Vernon Philander had passed a fitness test and would play in place of Kyle Abbott. There were undertones of racial politics at play but the team vowed to back Philander even though they felt bad for Abbott, who had been a standout performer in the games he was selected for. De Villiers delivered a stirring speech while Domingo sent his skipper a good night text message before the game.
“There was a lot of controversy about the selection in the semifinal and I just sent him a reminder about how important he was to the team and how valuable his contribution would be in the semifinal, that was really the gist of it. There was a certain disappointment in the squad, but by no means did we ever feel that the team was weakened in a way. We were sure Vernon would do a good job as well, which he did,” Domingo says.
Then match day arrived. Trent Boult swung the ball; Du Plessis resisted. Kane Williamson put down de Villiers; de Villiers countered and David Miller teed off.
Then it rained, as it invariably does when South Africa are on the cusp in a World Cup. This one didn’t cost them the game, but it denied them a final flourish with the bat and a chance to employ a tactic that they would use four years later against Jonny Bairstow.
“There was a definite plan to bowl the first over to [Brendon] McCullum with Imran Tahir, the leg spinner,” says Domingo. “We didn’t go ahead because the rain had fallen and we thought the seamers would probably be effective. McCullum got going and gave them an incredible start.”
A little while later, Elliott, the South African-born allrounder who had emigrated to New Zealand years before, got going as well. Steyn thought South Africa “had this”, but when Elliott delivered the killer blow, the fast bowler was left on his haunches, hand cupping his chin in a disbelieving look, eyes staring vacantly out to the square boundary.
The moment after South Africa’s hopes went crashing ©Getty
Time heals most things but the scars from the emotional fallout from Eden Park linger around South African cricket. “That match definitely played a big part in a lot of players’ pscyhe,” Domingo acknowledges. “It was such a tough thing to deal with it. I think the management still talk about that game regularly. Maybe our performances post that World Cup were largely due to the emotional drain that players went through, because we struggled really to regain our form. It was to be understood, putting so much into that campaign and falling so short. The players took a long time to recover from that loss emotionally.”
South Africa’s significantly weaker 2019 squad is in many ways a function of what transpired before and after that game against New Zealand. For one, it left a gaping hole in a generation of players who had accomplished most other goals in the game, with a string of individual accolades and a sustained run as the top-ranked Test side in the world still feeling a little hollow. The 2019 World Cup always looked a couple of years too far away for most of them, given their age, and the different ways they have each dealt with that fact has hardly helped South Africa’s preparation for this tournament.
De Villiers, who was a sobbing mess at the end of that game, marinated in the afterglow of what he termed his “greatest disappointment” longer than most. Injuries throughout 2016 gave him time to think about life away from the game, and when he returned it was in a manner designed to prolong his career to the 2019 World Cup. This meant limiting his Test involvement, and when that led to accusations of picking and choosing games – and the 2017 Champions Trophy brought further disappointment – de Villiers became increasingly opaque about his future.
He stepped down as one-day captain, reminded everyone of his outrageous abilities with series-defining performances in the Tests against India and Australia, then suddenly retired in 2018 saying that he could live without another crack at the World Cup. It turned out that wasn’t true, but his late offer to play in England only served to scramble the minds of the current setup.
Had South Africa won the 2015 World Cup as de Villiers had envisioned, would he have walked away sooner, leaving more room for the new generation to come through and ensuring less energy was spent discussing his situation – both before and during this tournament?
The semifinal was an inflexion point in the careers of Steyn and Amla as well. They were past their peak but stayed on despite diminishing returns. The writing was on the wall for the former when he suffered a second significant shoulder injury in late 2016, but neither Steyn nor South Africa have wanted to read it. Both his and Amla’s selection in the World Cup squad was essentially made on reputation rather than form. Might they have been able to let things go sooner if it weren’t for that night in Auckland?
“The fact that we came so close, it definitely made players maybe want to try and get back and do it again, because they had gotten that close,” Domingo says. “On the other side, some players like Kyle Abbott and Rilee Rossouw, they gave up international dreams. For them it had a totally different impact. So that game had two kinds of impact.”
Neither Abbott nor Rossouw felt assured of a sustained career with the national side – despite being on top of their games – and went Kolpak in 2017. Rossouw was player of the series in an ODI whitewash of Australia in 2016 and Abbott had just earned the new ball in the one-day team when the call was made. Both would have made the succession from the 2015 generation more fluid. While Rossouw would have made a natural replacement for de Villiers, Abbott would have filled the hole created by Morne Morkel’s retirement – another blow for South Africa’s plans that came relatively late in the four-year cycle.
Faf du Plessis at the crossroads ©Getty
Amidst the debris stands du Plessis, a puppet master with sabotaged strings. A natural leader of men who should have been handed the reins far earlier than he was, du Plessis is now trying to both manage a transition and win a World Cup – all while the South African Cricketers’ Association is taking Cricket South Africa to court. It appears to be a task beyond even him. What might another World Cup defeat to New Zealand mean for his future?
The impact of 24 March 2015 extended beyond the playing pool. Defeat that day seemed to leave CSA with doubts about Domingo’s ability to get South Africa over the line in a big tournament, and he was effectively put on notice in early 2017. His contract was due to expire later in the year, after the Champions Trophy and a tour of England, and it was made clear he would need to re-apply. He conducted himself admirably throughout the months that followed, and perhaps because a coach’s career is not defined by age, he still chooses to look at the game with a more balanced perspective.
“I think it was definitely one of the most emotional games I’ve been involved in as a coach, and also one of the best games,” says Domingo, who has been in charge of the South Africa A team since Ottis Gibson became Proteas coach in September 2017. “There was so much to learn from it. Dealing with success, dealing with failure, managing expectations, coming back from disappointment. It was a great learning experience. It’s a memory you don’t often talk about, but it’s a memory that will stay with me for a long time.”