Who are these impostors and what have they done with Faf du Plessis and his South African team? Should we call the police? Perhaps the immigration authorities?
These aren’t far from fair questions in the wake of South Africa’s performances at the World Cup. Rather, their lack of performance.
Their loss to England on Thursday was acceptable, even though the details of it — particularly their batting — left much to be desired. But Eoin Morgan’s team are at the top of their game and playing at home.
The crash to defeat against Bangladesh at the Oval on Sunday was of a different ilk. It was an embarrassment, and evidence that something at the heart of du Plessis’ side is worryingly wrong.
South Africa do not look good. They have been zombified. They are a dead team walking. At least, that’s how it looks from here. There has been a peculiarly un-South African listlessness and flatness about the way they have played their first two games at the World Cup. They even fell apart in the field on Sunday, an unheard of malaise to strike a side who dare call themselves South Africa, who share a heritage with players like Colin Bland, Peter Kirsten and Jonty Rhodes.
South Africa have lost one-day internationals to Bangladesh before; four of them, and even at a World Cup — in Guyana in 2007. But they have never been made to look so mediocre by such modest opponents.
The 330/6 Bangladesh put on the board is their highest total in ODIs. That alone is cause for grave concern. How could it be that one of cricket’s most potent attacks was overpowered by one of its most underwhelming batting line-ups? Bangladesh are plucky but, especially in English conditions, they are nothing special.
They were extra special on Sunday. Or were South Africa extra ordinary?
A bigger question would seem to be ripe for the asking. South Africa came to this tournament telling all who would listen that they had changed; that they weren’t among the favourites and that they were comfortable, happy, even, with the lack of belief in their chances of going a long way in 2019.
They were more than willing to cruise under the radar, they said, cool with not being considered among the big boys. The reality is that if they keep playing like they are, it might soon be necessary to use radar to try and find them. They would seem to have vanished into cricket’s equivalent of the Bermuda Triangle.
Against England, the batting failed them. Against Bangladesh, it was primarily the bowling that was the problem. They are playing schizophrenic cricket, perhaps because they aren’t sure what kind of cricket they should be playing now that they no longer play the way they did. Do they still know who and what they are? “Please, Sir,” they might want to ask the relevant powers, “May we have our team back?”
It’s all very well to try and rebrand yourself as a side willing to make peace with your limitations, but South Africa would seem to have suffered some kind of collective amnesia.
And it isn’t going to get any easier for them with India looming in Southampton on Wednesday.
Virat Kohli’s team don’t simply play cricket. They make statements; the bigger and bolder the better. What bigger, bolder, better statement could they send to the rest of their opponents and to their legions of supporters across the world than smashing South Africa to smithereens?
You have to fear for du Plessis and his players if that happens. Physically they are in a bad way already, with Hashim Amla having taken a blow to the head courtesy of Jofra Archer, Dale Steyn still battling the shoulder injury that has kept him out of both of South Africa’s matches, and Lungi Ngidi adding himself to the list on Sunday with a hamstring issue. A crushing defeat on Wednesday would be a mental setback from which they might not recover for months.
These are dark days for South Africa, which was plain from the drawn look on du Plessis’ face at his press conference after Sunday’s game. He looked not a little like he did after batting for almost eight hours in Adelaide’s heat in November 2012 to score the undefeated century that saved his debut Test. Talk about happier days.
Perhaps du Plessis should revisit that memory and tell the story of it to his team, about how on his way to the middle in the first innings he tripped on his way down the stairs, how his boot came off and he was being ragged mercilessly by the thoroughly Australian spectators in the vicinity, how he struggled to get his boot back on, pads and all, how he feared becoming the first player ever to be timed out in Test cricket. And how he came good despite all that. Everybody likes a happy ending, especially when they’re down.
The tale is part of the folklore of South African cricket, woven into the fabric of what it means to be part of a team whose first thought after falling over is how to get back up again.
Every cricketminded South African knows the story as well as they know the batting order, but it would mean so much more if the other 14 cricketminded South Africans who are looking to du Plessis for leadership hear it told afresh by the man himself.
It is his story. He was there. He knows what it felt like then, and he knows what it feels like now. To be down but not out. Not yet, anyway. And to get up.