MANCHESTER – It would be fair to say the enmity South Africans have for David Warner is on par with the Australians’ abhorrence for Faf du Plessis.
And true to their pantomime villain characters, they were duly the chief protagonists in an enthralling final World Cup league encounter here at Old Trafford.
Both struck blazing centuries, and it meant the world to each for altogether contrasting reasons. Warner, of course, was facing South Africa for the first time since being denounced as the orchestrator of the cheating scandal that erupted at Newlands 15 months ago.
He was certainly reminded of his indiscretions throughout this 122 off 117 balls with a chorus of boos ringing in his ears after every shot.
Plenty of introspection has taken place though since that fateful day in Cape Town, but Warner would have known that his redemption could only be complete after facing his demons head on. That much was achieved when Warner went to three figures, with his celebration telling the story of a man that had just been relieved of a hefty weight off his shoulders.
Ditto Du Plessis. The South African skipper has endured a rough past six weeks here in the United Kingdom. Not only has he tried to his maintain personal game, but he’s been pushed to the very limit in trying to get each member of his squad to raise the level of their performances.
The intensity only increased after every defeat, with the firing squad locked firmly on Du Plessis. He always knew it was the batsmen’s responsibility, particularly the old pro’s, to take hold of the situation, which is why his animated celebration also spoke a thousand words.
Du Plessis dropped his bat and helmet to the Old Trafford turf, clutched the Proteas emblem on his chest and then embraced Rassie van der Dussen like a man that was emotionally spent. The fact that his century – South Africa’s only at the World Cup – was enough to salvage a consolation 10-run victory on the night over the arch-enemy would have meant the world to a leader that has dedicated his entire being to the Proteas cause.
And to think it was all supposed to be fun and fan-fare at Old Trafford yesterday. Farewell to a couple of South African stalwarts and Australia fine-tuning their processes ahead of semi-final week.
But these two teams really don’t know how to let their hair down, even when it’s a dead-rubber. There is almost something tribal that erupts when Australia and South Africa meet on a sports field, and the Proteas-partisan crowd certainly played its part in creating a Bullring-like atmosphere within Old Trafford.
The Proteas certainly fed most off this buzzing energy. Knowing that it was the last time many of them would share a cricket field with JP Duminy and Imran Tahir playing their last ODI, and Du Plessis likely to join them in ODI retirement soon, the Proteas raised their collective game to a level not seen at this World Cup.
"Absolute champions of human beings. Immy is the heartbeat of the team, JP the father figure."— ICC (@ICC) July 6, 2019
A World Cup farewell to @jpduminy21 and @ImranTahirSA, two stalwarts of South Africa 👌 #ProteaFire pic.twitter.com/oq6J6JURB0
In fact, it was rather frustrating watching the Proteas play with such commitment and skill, especially with the bat, after the curtain had already been drawn on their failed World Cup campaign.
Last night, though, needed to be taken for it what it was. Two teams pushing each other to the brink, with Australia also still fighting with everything they had for that elusive top spot on the ladder that would see them avoid a semi-final date with hosts England in Birmingham on Thursday.
They ultimately will take a trip down the M6 for what will no doubt be billed the mini-Ashes, while the Proteas will head home on Sunday wondering what could have been achieved if only they had brought this intensity when they had arrived here in the United Kingdom six weeks ago.
South Africa: 325/6 (Du Plessis 100, Van der Dussen 95, De Kock 52, Lyon 2/53)
Australia: 315 all out (Warner 122, Carey 85, Rabada 3/56, Pretorius 2/27)
South Africa won by 10 runs