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Lucknow: At the toss, opposing captains Pat Cummins and Temba Bavuma both said they had no idea how this newly laid pitch would play. Twenty hours later, it is safe to assume that the bulk of Australia’s batsmen still don’t know. Of the top six, only Marnus Labuschagne spent more than 30 balls on it on a calamitous night for Australia.
Perhaps they should ask South African stalwart Quinton de Kock, who in the afternoon quickly made his acquaintance with the deck and reeled off the silkiest of centuries. His teammates coalesced around it to make what looked like an interesting score which was then magnified by Australia’s evening wretchedness into something insurmountable.
South Africa team members celebrate their team’s win over Australia.Credit: Getty Images
So it was that Australia crashed to their heaviest ever World Cup defeat, the second in two matches in this World Cup and their fourth in a row in World Cup cricket for the first time in history. It was also their fourth defeat in a row to South Africa, all by more than 100 runs.
Australia now lie two games behind the leading four teams, excluding England, who you would expect to be pushing hard for a semi-final place anyway. This sorry night, their net run rate copped kidney punch, too. To maintain a mathematical chance of surviving in the tournament, they must beat Sri Lanka here on Monday. That is not an equation they would have contemplated five days ago.
Suddenly, there are so many questions the Australians will have to ask for reading time. They pertain to selection as well as performance. Frankly, Australia looks like a Test team crudely adapted for the white-ball cricket they rarely play, then patched up to deal with untimely injury and failing form. In this XI, only Glenn Maxwell and Marcus Stoinis are customised one-day players.
The bowling has been adequate, but the batting is short and fragile. It is the business of the World Cup to deal with a new set of challenges every few days. In two matches, Australia have failed to cope with the spin of India in the Chennai afternoon and the high-class seam of the South Africans this Lucknow night. The fielding, too, has been by Australian standards sloppy.
The selectors were right to replace strugglers Cameron Green and Alex Carey with Stoinis and Josh Inglis this night, resisting the instinct to wait a moment. In a tournament, there is no time to waste. It is of no account that both had nights to file under missing persons; there were plenty like them this night.
Everything that could go wrong did. Two South African referrals so late they were more like retrospectives brought the wickets of Steve Smith and Marcus Stoinis for Kagiso Rabada.
Smith missed a ball on leg stump, once a phenomenon so rare only David Attenborough had seen it. Stoinis was trying to remove a glove from the bat handle as the ball brushed it. Both were caught on DRS. In between. Rabada castled Josh Inglis as surely as if on a chessboard.
Mitch Marsh, Davis Warner and Maxwell all miscued balls that stopped in the pitch. Australia was 6-70 and the rest was test pattern. The dew fell, but the batsmen who might have profited from it were long gone. The residue of Australia’s batting used it to try to mitigate the damage to Australia’s net run rate, but it is still almost beyond repair. On the table, they sit beneath the Netherlands.
South Africa’s 7-311 was founded on de Kock’s second successive century, an innings so smooth you could feed it to a baby. Six in white-ball cricket is now as four was once, noteworthy but not exceptional unless hit with some novelty flourish. De Kock hit five of them.
The pitch had been relaid since it was last used, but played as if it had been laid out for burial. On it, the Australian attack might have believed they had done well to restrict the white-hot South African line-up.
Maxwell was easily the best, maintaining control of both his line and the batsmen’s intentions. It was he to whom de Kock succumbed in bizarre fashion, his reverse sweep bobbling from bat to body and onto the stumps. Maxwell roared as if kicking a goal in a grand final.
The middle overs remain problematic for Australia, this day yielding the batsman six an over, dribbling constantly as if from a faulty tap. But with 350 in prospect, the wickets of the dangerous Aiden Markram and Heinrich Klaasen an over apart put a brake on the South Africans in the last 10.
Australia would have wondered then if they would live to regret six chances with a range of degrees of difficulty, but should have brought at least four wickets. The last two, skiers two balls apart by Mitch Starc and Stoinis from the bowling of Cummins, were so forgettable they were memorable.
Starc’s amends was a double wicket maiden in the 50th over, a rarity in any age. The Australians then did not know whether to laugh, cry or call for the heavy roller. They should have called an Uber.
Cricket is famously a religion in India. Evidently, it is one from which adherents are required to avert their eyes. The crowd, lost in a cavernous stadium, was about the size for a picnic race meeting. One team indeed had a picnic.
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