CWC19 A World Cup fairy tale? Can South Africa still claim the prize?

Adrian Meredith imagines a world in which South Africa recovers from their 0-3 start to win the 2019 World Cup.

World Cups are known for their fairy tales. Nobody much cares that Australia won three World Cups in a row from 1999 to 2007, nor that they went unbeaten for two of them. Indeed, when West Indies did the same thing in the first two editions and were primed to do the same thing in the third, people were just about to fall off to sleep in boredom – until India produced the biggest upset in World Cup history in winning. That was when cricket captured the Indian public’s imagination, and the game as a whole forever grew as a result.

The greatest fairy tale was probably in 1992, when Pakistan came from 1-3 down with one washout (which they should have lost as they were bowled out for 78 before rain came) to qualify for the semi-final and then win the final. A close second is probably 1999, when Australia came from 0-2 down to win every match to qualify, including two of the most dramatic World Cup matches of all-time, the final Super Six match and the semi-final, both against South Africa.

But there are also fairy tales that weren’t quite as nailbiting, such as India’s shock win in 1983, having never previously made the semi-finals even. Against the best team in the world and 2x reigning champions West Indies, as well as Sri Lanka’s incredible win in 1996 in spite of being an absolute minnow at the time. Arguably even Australia’s win in 1987, when they were at their lowest, was something of a fairy tale. Indeed, even India’s win in 2011, as the first team ever to win as hosts, was something of a fairy tale. To some, even Australia’s shock win in 2015, in spite of being at a definite trough, was a fairy tale.

Which team is poised to be 2019’s fairy tale?

South Africa.

Sure, it’d be nice to see Bangladesh, until recently an absolute minnow, go all the way to win the tournament, but that seems beyond unrealistic. If West Indies could win, after having to qualify, that would be exciting too, but at least they have won before. The fairy tale to beat all fairy tales, the one that all neutrals want, is for South Africa to make it.

Until 2015, South Africa had never won a knockout match, then in 2015 they won their quarter final, only to lose the semi-final, off the second last ball, when Grant Elliott of New Zealand hit it over the ropes for 6, when 5 runs were needed off 2 balls. Dale Steyn collapsed in horror, and vowed to come back for 2019 just to give South Africa one last chance. He made it to the squad, and was meant to play in the first match, only for a new injury to occur in a warm-up match, one that was meant to only cost one match, but instead he was sent home.

A B de Villiers, for so long the talisman of South African cricket, cruelly retired just a year before the World Cup. As we have since learned, he unretired in time for the World Cup but the team management said no to it, as he had not played for the previous 12 months – other than T20s, of course. Now we know why they missed him so much – they could have so easily had him.

In spite of no de Villiers and no Steyn they still slaughtered Sri Lanka in their warm-up and were on track to comfortably beat West Indies before rain came, but then, in their opening match, it all went wrong and they lost to England. Then, thanks to Amla being left out just to be safe due to the concussion he suffered against England, they chose to go with an extra bowler, then didn’t use him, and Bangladesh had one of the biggest upsets of all-time to defeat them. Then, against pre-tournament 2nd favourites India, they stumbled, ever so slightly, thanks to Rohit Sharma’s century, and Lungi Ngidi missing due to injury.

They sit on 0-3 now and many are writing them off. The team at the Pinch Hitters pushed them from 2nd favourites to 8th, but actually they can still very much win it.

6-3 is probably the target for the semi-finals. It depends on other teams, of course, and 5-4 might be enough, but equally you might need 7-2. South Africa may already be knocked out, or they may be able to lose 1 more match. Certainly they can’t afford to lose any more than that. More likely, they need to win every match.

Their first match is against West Indies, a team who are in incredible form right now, and, as of writing, are winning a game against Australia, but the match is not over yet. If West Indies win it, it will be very hard for South Africa to get past them, but if Australia win, then they will have lost some of their momentum, giving South Africa that hint of a chance.

Can’t get enough Cricket? Be sure to check out our Pinch Hitters World Cup Power Rankings after Week One here.

The good thing for South Africa is that they have some time between matches. Having played 3 games in quick succession they now have close to a week before their 4th, enough time to regroup, to strategise, to work out their best team, and to play them. It also might give enough time for Lungi Ngidi to recover from his injury.

It is not going to be easy, and West Indies have the chance to knock South Africa out of the tournament, but South Africa are every chance to win. Pre-tournament, this is one you would have said was surely going South Africa’s way. Only momentum is making us think otherwise. If Australia beat West Indies, South Africa should too.

If South Africa get past West Indies, the dream is alive, but it is far from guaranteed.

Five days later they face Afghanistan, a big rest to recoup and strategise again. Afghanistan are officially 10th now, below even Sri Lanka, and South Africa should beat them easily, but after their shock loss to Bangladesh they won’t be taking it easily. They need to win this one as part of their run. They should not be taking big risks or going for a big margin. A 20 run win is enough. Take it to the 45th over. Be safe. Be sensible. Win by any margin.

Four days after that, on the 19th of June, they face New Zealand, one of the teams that were picked to either just make the semi-finals or just miss out, a team who, pre-tournament, would have been predicted to fight with South Africa for the 4th and final spot in the semi-finals. Now they are a big test for South Africa. New Zealand will have faced Afghanistan and then India before this, and, again, it could be down to momentum. If New Zealand are unbeaten to that point then South Africa’s chances are slim, but if India had beaten them, then there is every chance for South Africa to get over the line. Once again, South Africa will be hoping that another team can do them a favour.

If South Africa win that, they will be sitting on 3-3, and it will start to feel very real. They might be 5th or 6th on the points table, and people will be talking. Maybe it will be India, Australia, England, West Indies and New Zealand in positions 1-5, and South Africa need to get past two of them to qualify.

The next match will be Pakistan on the 23rd of June, a banana peel if ever there was one. Pakistan are already looking to repeat 1992’s effort and no matter what happens between now and then they will still be hoping. Pakistan face Sri Lanka, Australia and India between now and then, and are expected to beat Sri Lanka, but probably not Australia or India. Of course, if Pakistan wins all of those matches then it’ll be hard for South Africa, and then we could be seeing two in-form teams face off. Or Pakistan too could be sitting on 3-3, both teams needing to win all of their remaining matches to qualify. It’s a banana skin but it’s not impossible. South Africa will probably be favourites if they are on 3-3 by then, and they should go to 4-3.

Then South Africa face Sri Lanka on the 28th, a team they recently lost to in tests, but beat handily in the warm-up match. This should not be a banana peel at all, but they’d do well to be careful just the same. They should win this and go to 5-3, and be sitting on the precipice.

We could have Australia, India and England qualified already, and New Zealand, West Indies and South Africa all sitting on 5-4, with West Indies ahead on net run rate, perhaps, and each team having beaten the other. If South Africa lose their last match, against Australia, then they could be knocked out, letting West Indies, perhaps, go through. But if they win, then they could qualify, perhaps even in 3rd place ahead of India, perhaps even setting up a semi-final against Australia.

Right now, South Africa would be massive underdogs but if they win 5 in a row to 5-3, then they are a very real chance of beating Australia, especially if the tournament is on the line. It could remind everyone of 1999, and if South Africa were to win that match and qualify for the semis, especially if it sets up a semi-final against Australia, then many would be thinking they would win.

Imagine if that were to happen, and then, in the final, South Africa come out to face England, the team who beat them in the first match to set up the rot that caused them to have to win.

South Africa would say a resounding “thank you” to the hosts with a resounding thumping, and subsequent celebration.

It’d be a fairy tale and a half, not only for South Africa to win for the first time after so many near misses, but to come back from 0-3 down.

It’s unlikely to happen, and more likely they’ll lose to West Indies on the 10th of June and that will be the end of that, but it is possible.

It’s happened before.

And it sure would be great for cricket if it happened again.

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