AB de Villiers’ face. It was different than Angelo Mathews’ face. Mathews had the face of a man hoping he won the toss. De Villiers had the face of a man hoping he wouldn’t lose it.
Two captains: one captaining a must-win game of cricket, the other captaining a past awash with disappointments.
Then de Villiers’ face got worse, much worse. The Sri Lankan crowd cheered. There weren’t many of them in, but they knew what this meant. Everyone knew what this meant. Sri Lanka would bat first; South Africa would chase. All of South Africa’s past flashed up on de Villiers’ face. The coin was against him. History was against him. His own emotions seemed against him.
It even looked like David Boon leant in to sledge him.
This was a knockout game. This was the knockout game.
Kusal Perera opening the batting, with an average of 22, would be a good sign for many sides. For South Africa, it might have brought back thoughts of 361 days ago in the World T20 where Perera opened the batting and made 61. South Africa lost.
This time Kusal Perera was different. More 22 than 61. He left one ball. Pushed the next to point. Then missed a swipe. Missed second slip with an edge. Missed the ball. Edged safely again. Tried to run himself out. Play and miss. Swipe and miss. There is a point when you nearly get a batsman this many times that you think a malevolent spirit is orchestrating your downfall.
Then Kusal’s edge is found, again. It is flying beautifully straight into first slip’s hand. Instead Quinton de Kock dives. He clutches. The ball bounces. It could go anywhere. Instead it hangs in mid air. And de Kock pulls off a hell of a catch for a man called mentally shot earlier in the week. Luck, and skill.
Soon it is 4 for 2. Dale Steyn is so excited his body almost explodes into pure light.
Or, maybe it just explodes. The elation is gone and there is concern on the faces of Steyn and de Villiers. A wide ball seems to set it off. Steyn is trying to reach a sore spot that looks like it could, or would, stop him bowling. He finishes the over, and continues to touch this mystery spot. On the boundary, the physio and Allan Donald come around to see how it is. Steyn and the physio touch it 12 times in 8 balls. That’s a worrying pain strike rate.
Steyn does not bowl the next over.
Instead, he bowls two overs later. And it is fine. So fine, it’s a maiden.
In the ninth over there are two shots by Lahiru Thirimanne. Both through point and cover point. Both in the air. Both miss hands. If any country could catch these, it is South Africa. This is the region of Colin Bland. Jonty Rhodes. AB de Villiers. The second one goes over de Villiers, close enough that he could smell it. De Villiers, one of the nicest men in cricket, swears at the sky. Swears at his luck. Swears.
Kumar and Mahela are in. The Sri Lankan dream team. Mahela is hit in front by a Tahir wrong ‘un he simply did not pick. Not out. Tahir is certain. De Kock is pretty sure. They review. They want to end this pairing. They are desperate. It is only 22 overs into the innings. That is a long time to not have a review. Replays show he was struck outside the line of off stump. What chances Mahela will not pick another wrong ‘un?
Tahir’s next ball is a short wrong ‘un. Mahela hits it twice. The second hit is the one that does Mahela: it ends with short midwicket. The first hit would have been safe. Maybe. Just maybe.
Mahela is replaced by Angelo. Angelo and Kumar. Two dogged men. Two men who can bat for 20 overs and make bad starts into distant memories. Two men who bat for close to ten overs at a slow pace, because they have to, and because they can.
Then Mathews walks down to smite JP Duminy, South Africa’s weakest bowler. He sees a gap between mid-on and midwicket. And he cracks the ball towards it. It would have reached the boundary – if it ever got past South African hands, du Plessis’ hands. Eight balls and three more wickets later the match is won. Isn’t it?
It’s only Kumar left. Only. Kumar.
The first ball of the 36th over has Kumar swiping. He has been nudging, leaving, blocking and occupying space until this point. That Kumar is no more. The swivel-hipped gunslinger is back.
‘Singles, I don’t want your stinking singles’, as he leaves one on the table to third man. Next ball, he corrects, so there is no need for a single, just four. The next ball he is down the wicket and finds a gap for two. Then another four. The next ball is timed so well, the off-side sweeper nearly didn’t see it, but Kumar hit it straight at him: it’s ball six, it’s time to reload for the other end.
It’s just one over, with eight wickets down, and virtually no runs on the board. But it’s Kumar.
Next over he starts by trying to send Morne Morkel into outer space. The follow-up ball, sort and wide, is perhaps one of the worst Morne balls of the night. It is also the greatest Morne ball of the night. It is the ball that Kumar finds third man with.
Before Kumar has even left, it rains on the SCG. Rain. South Africa. Knockout game. No. No. Come on.
“Don’t worry, folks, it’s just a sun shower,” says the announcer. Who is this guy, does he know who he is watching, does he know what he is saying? Social media talks of 22 off one ball. Rain map websites in Australia are watched by a whole country from Africa. When the rain does stop, the covers stay on. Even the groundsmen are trolling South Africa.
There is no plucky tenth-wicket partnership. There is no first-over wicket. There is no sign of collapse. South Africa just coast to the ICC-enforced mid-innings rest stop. Even when the mighty Hashim Amla is out, right on the rest stop, there is no panic. There is no uneasiness. There are no worried faces.
For the finale, de Kock smashes a ball through cover, the last ball of only the 18th over. As it races away he breaks into a quick step. It looks like he is about to run like a mad man to the changeroom. Then he slows, walks purposefully and gives a tiny fist pump.
After all that, this was just a quarter-final. It wasn’t a monster. It wasn’t a demon. It wasn’t an invisible crushing force. No one averted an apocalypse. They just won a game. Not the final game. But the game.
AB de Villiers’ face at the next press opportunity is different. He is smirking before the question has even been asked. He breaks into a full smile before the question is finished. It is the face of winning a quarterfinal. The face.