South Africa on the brink after India condemn them to third defeat | Sport
Strike three, you’re just about out. This is the looming fate for South Africa after their six-wicket defeat by India – a third loss in the space of a week to begin their campaign – which probably leaves them with the task of winning all six of their remaining games to make the final four of this World Cup. Steering the chase in customary fashion, Rohit Sharma scored his 23rd ODI century, finishing unbeaten on 122 off 144 balls, to give the men in blue the ideal start.
The comfortable margin – Virat Kohli’s side reaching the victory target of 228 with 2.3 overs to spare – belies the fact that for the briefest moment, the period when Kagiso Rabada was charging in to start the Proteas’ defence of 227 for nine, the contest was red hot.
In a timely return to form, the leader of Faf du Plessis’s attack was a man inspired. Perhaps this had to do with the performance of Rabada’s opposing number Jasprit Bumrah, whose own outstanding opening burst – winning the edges of the opening duo Hashim Amla (6) and Quinton de Kock (10) – left South Africa well behind the game after winning the toss. Reinforcing why he is the No 1-ranked bowler in the world coming into this competition, the captivating right-arm quick beat the bat like this was the 1999 World Cup with the hooping Dukes ball.
At an average speed of 141kph, some 5kph higher than his shift against England last week, Rabada had Shikhar Dhawan (8) caught behind and celebrated in a fashion that looked like he was ready to explode. When Kohli walked out, the man he described as “immature” in the buildup, the scene was set. A rapid bouncer started their clash, followed by a searing yorker.
It did not last. Taking responsibility for the situation, Sharma smashed Rabada – who nearly had him caught in the cordon on one – for 14 in his next over, punctuated with a hook shot that cleared the rope. This resulted in Kohli facing only one further delivery in the barrage. The Indian captain eventually fell for an unconvincing 18 when the score was on 54 courtesy of a lovely piece of seam bowling from Andile Phehlukwayo and an even better one-handed catch by the wicketkeeper De Kock, but by then Sharma was well in.
It was Bumrah who set up the pins of India’s bowling effort but Yuzvendra Chahal (four for 51) knocked them down through the middle overs, depriving South Africa of oxygen. Du Plessis’s (38) and Rassie van der Dussen’s (22) stand of 54 for the third wicket advanced the score from 24 for two. Enter India’s leg-spinner, who castled them both in the 20th over.
A major plank of India’s plan is for their slow bowlers to squeeze the life out of the opposition between the power plays. After Chahal’s double strike, the left-arm wrist-spinner Kuldeep Yadav (one for 46) trapped JP Duminy (3) three overs later. Cleverly, Kohli then introduced the part-timer Kedar Jadhav, who got through four overs of his innocuous side-arm darts for 16 runs. David Miller (31) and Phelukhwayo (34) stayed the course but could not break the shackles, the former caught and bowled when Chahal returned, the latter stumped.
An admirable rearguard stand of 66 between Chris Morris (42 off 34 balls) and Rabada (31 off 35) helped retrieve the situation to an extent in the final 10 overs, but India went into the interval having conceded just three in a classy 50th over from Bhuvneshwar Kumar (two for 44).
After Sharma put the brakes on Rabada’s charge, he did what he has so often when chasing and took his time. When Morris was in operation – he sent down three maidens across an unlucky afternoon – he was happy to watch, scoring just six runs from 23 balls. He did not change approach when an lbw decision went his way in the 12th over, nor when an outside edge was inches away from finishing his day in the 24th. He is as cool as they come.
After passing 50 in 70 balls, there was one final interrogation from Rabada to get through, a spell that picked up the wicket of the No 4 KL Rahul (23) when chipping to cover with 89 runs still needed at just a run a ball. But by that point a Sharma century – raised from his 128th delivery – was as much a formality as the overall task alongside MS Dhoni.
If there was going to be a miracle for South Africa, it would have required Miller to catch Sharma in the 44th over when the score was 193. But, inexplicably, the rudimentary chance was shelled to the utter delight of the partisan Indian audience and the despair of Rabada, who fought to the end. Sure enough, the century-maker ramped the next ball for four. The vignette neatly summed up the Proteas’ first week in the tournament. At least Morris (one for 36) got his name in the book, albeit falling on the stumps when taking a skied Dhoni chance when India needed 15 to salute. Hardik Pandya (11 not out) cut the winning runs moments later.
South Africa begin their sudden-death stretch on Monday at Southampton against West Indies with India moving to the capital for a blockbuster against Australia at the Oval on Sunday.