TELFORD VICE in London
WHAT’S worse than playing so far below yourself you cut fresh scars into those you already have from too many previous failures to launch?
Sympathy from the devil.
Or, last Sunday, from the devilish Virat Kohli, who plotted and pilotted South Africa’s downfall in their make-or-break Champions Trophy match at The Oval.
Kohli’s co-pilots were the South Africans themselves, who not for the first time and probably not the last delivered a performance that aided and abetted their opponents so much that had they been soldiers in wartime they would have been taken out and shot.
What is it about South Africa and mental frailty come tournament time?
“I don’t know,” Kohli said after the match, his fiery eyes softening with pathetic sympathy. “To me their batsmen looked pretty confident.
“But if you get two runouts pretty quickly then the mindset totally changes.
“As a captain you have to understand where the game is heading after that.
“We went after wickets then because we understood they were probably hesitating in going for their shots, and we’ve got attacking fielders. We asked the bowlers to make them play difficult shots.
“That paid off and we were able to close the game out.”
What a nice man.
And what a bullshitter.
The fact was that Faf du Plessis and AB de Villiers had no business taking a single to point when they should have seen the fielder stationed there — Hardik Pandya — swooping towards the ball.
Five deliveries later Du Plessis turned his back on the hard-charging David Miller, who would have beaten the throw to that end of the pitch.
What followed was the kind of meltdown South Africans have been numbed into accepting from their marshmallow men: eight wickets crashed for 51 runs.
Even so, the game was not yet lost. An attack as fine as that comprising Kagiso Rabada, Morne Morkel, Andile Phehlukwayo, Chris Morris, Imran Tahir and even JP Duminy had half a chance of defending 191.
But the South Africans wore their defeat on their faces long before the extent of their crash at the batting crease hove into view.
That was the hardest, bitterest pill to swallow: that they were beaten hours before the mighty scorers confirmed their fate.
What happened to the boast we’ve heard before every tournament from politicians, captains and a slew of likely suspects between those poles — that South Africa have the best batsmen and the best bowlers around, that they are the best team around?
What happened to South Africa’s fighting spirit? We know it exists because we’ve seen it in test cricket and on the world’s rugby fields. Where did it go on Sunday?
“Pleased to meet you,” Mick Jagger rasped in “Sympathy for the Devil” all those years ago.
“Hope you guess my name/But what’s puzzling you/Is the nature of my game …”
On days like Sunday, bloody Sunday, South Africa’s game isn’t cricket. It’s denial — that they’re mentally soft, that their allrounders are really bowlers who can bat a bit, that fine players don’t often make good captains, that the 2015 World Cup and all that is forgotten.