She was tall, dark and radiant. He was taller, pale and fresh-faced. They made a beautiful couple, stepping straight from the pages of a magazine as they walked into the dining hall at a posh beachfront hotel in Frigate Bay, St Kitts. It was brunch time on March 17, 2007.
Purely in cricket terms, Daan van Bunge had no right to look so pleased with himself. The previous day Herschelle Gibbs had lashed his bowling to all parts of Warner Park in Basseterre to become the first man to hit each ball of an over for six in an international match: a World Cup game between South Africa and the Netherlands.
The conditions helped. Warner Park doesn’t seem much bigger than a wheel of gouda, the Netherlands’ best-known cheese, turned on its side. The pitch was as flat and friendly as a Johnny cake, the puffy pancakes that are a staple of Caribbean breakfasts. So van Bunge shouldn’t have taken his beating personally.
“I think I was just going to try and smash the ball irrespective of who the bowler was,” Gibbs wrote in “To the Point” his, as billed, “no-holds-barred” 2010 autobiography. “I also wasn’t thinking I would hit six sixes from the outset; the idea only entered my head after I’d clocked the first two.”
Gibbs’ first six flew over long-on, the second over long-off. When the third skimmed low into the stands beyond long-off, the Reuters reporter in the pressbox snapped to attention. His standing instruction was that, in the event of the extraordinary, he should telephone the editorial desk in Barbados to get the story out as quickly as possible; not write a snap report and file it in the usual fashion. When van Bunge’s fourth offering disappeared over midwicket, the reporter put a trembling hand on the receiver of the landline phone on his desk. When the fifth was launched over the covers, he picked up.
Simultaneously, Gibbs had an odd conversation with his batting partner in the middle. “Well, you’ve got five now; there’s no need for a sixth,” Jacques Kallis, Gibbs wrote, had told him. Gibbs was having none of that: “I was like, ‘B****r that, boet [bro]. I’m going for another one.’ I mean, how many such chances do you get in international cricket? … he must have been having a laugh.” The man from Reuters was on the line to Barbados and talking to an editor before the last six, aimed towards midwicket, had been cleared for take-off.
To celebrate, that night Gibbs took to Frigate Bay’s beach bars. He stood, smartly dressed, one elbow on the counter, the other angled by a hand propped on his hip, ankles neatly crossed, all smiles and politeness, buying drinks and accepting offers of drinks, until at least 2am. James Bond himself couldn’t have behaved with more elegant civility. Later that morning, at around 6.30am, Gibbs was striding up a fairway on the nearby golf course, nine-iron in hand, immaculately re-attired and looking impossibly fresh.
van Bunge must have had a good brunch. Or perhaps he was in love. Or both. “It’s happened, and I can’t do anything about it,” he said about his pasting during an interview at the hotel later that day. “In fact, it was good hitting, it was quite nice.” Gibbs, he said, had been the epitome of a good sport: “He came to me afterwards. He was laughing and said I shouldn’t worry about it because the boundaries were so short. We had a laugh about it and that’s the way it should be.”
If recounting this episode now seems strange, consider that South Africa are on the verge of their first-ever series against the Dutch: the teams will contest three ODIs in Centurion starting on November 26. Consider, too, that the South Africans are freshly back from another World Cup failure, in the T20 version in the UAE, where – as expected this time – they failed to reach the semifinals.
They did make it to the semis in 2007, and plummeted to 27/5 on their way to a seven-wicket thrashing by Australia in St Lucia. Infamously, South Africa haven’t reached a final in any of the 15 World Cups, regardless of format, in which they have played.
The omens weren’t good eight days after the 2007 Netherlands game when, still in Basseterre for a group match against the Aussies, they crashed from 220/2 in the 31st over to 294 all out in 38 in search of a target of 378. That result seemed unlikely when Graeme Smith retired hurt with cramp midway through the innings – his team were 184/1, or just 0.40 off their required run rate of 7.67. Kallis, who had faced 15 balls for five runs when Smith left, ended up making 48 off 63, a strike rate of 76.19. Even considering the formats are different and that urgency has become the doctrine of white-ball batting in the ensuing 14 years, Kallis’ puzzling approach in that innings, which had much to do with South Africa’s loss, makes Temba Bavuma’s T20 World Cup strike rate of 108.33 look stratospheric. Yet Bavuma has copped a lot more flak than Kallis did at the time.
Bavuma has been rested for the Netherlands series, so he won’t have the chance to prove his critics wrong. Quinton de Kock, Bjorn Fortuin, Heinrich Klaasen, Aiden Markram, Wiaan Mulder, Anrich Nortje, Kagiso Rabada and Rassie van der Dussen, who were all at the T20 World Cup, have also been given a break. Of those nine players, only Fortuin, Klaasen and Mulder won’t be considered part of South Africa’s first-choice XI.
Still, the home side seem unlikely to slip up against opponents they’ve beaten convincingly in all of their five white-ball meetings, especially with World Cup Super League points at stake. The Dutch have played a dozen games in South Africa, all of them ODIs, and have won seven of them. But they have never taken on the South Africans in their backyard, and their successes have been achieved against the likes of Namibia, Canada, Bermuda and Kenya.
Unsurprisingly, neither South Africa nor the Netherlands are the teams they were in 2007. What won’t have changed is the home side’s expectation of victory against a squad of 15 harbouring five players who were born in South Africa and learnt the game there, but were unable to make their mark in green and gold. They are Colin Ackermann, Clayton Floyd, Brandon Glover, Stephan Myburgh, and Roelof van der Merwe.
Van der Merwe has 51 white-ball caps, 26 of them for South Africa. But none of the other four cracked the nod at senior level in their land of their birth. And even Van der Merwe wasn’t everyone’s favourite. “He’s a bit of an imposter, isn’t he,” was how one South Africa selector dismissed the irrepressibly competitive allrounder when he was still in the country.
Don’t expect anyone to hit a half-dozen sixes in an over in Centurion next weekend, nor to be in a bar at 2am or on the golf course at 6.30am. Do expect a hattrick of South Africa wins. But don’t expect it to be all over by brunch time.