As South Africa were making inroads into the Afghanistan batting order, steadily eroding the gutsy team’s improbable semi-final chances, the broadcaster put out a multi-coloured ball-tracking graphic to show that the Ahmedabad pitch had marginally lost its bounce with each of its four matches. The map will add a fifth band when the Narendra Modi Stadium stages its fifth game on Sunday – the 2023 World Cup final.
It is unlikely Gerald Coetzee would have been aware of this nugget of information. If he was indeed provided the input by team analysts, it is unlikely the 23-year-old Proteas fast bowler, a glutton for information as he prepares for games, would have even given a second thought.
And Coetzee, strongly built, consistently quick with a powerful delivery stride that has shades of his cricketing hero Dale Steyn but carrying added explosiveness due to his 6’3” frame, put that graphic in perspective.
It is the 27th over and the ball is getting old. But steaming in, the youngster from Bloemfontein nicknamed the ‘Karate Kid’ for a distinct head band that adds menace quotient to a fierce glare shot at the batter, bangs on short and into the pitch. Ikram Alikhil has barely spots it before it flies over the Afghan batter as well as wicket-keeper Quinton de Kock.
Shaken, Alikhil’s feet are frozen as he tamely nicks the classical fast bowler’s follow-up delivery, pitched up and on the corridor outside off-stump. Just a nod of appreciation and admiration from De Kock follows after pouching the catch, one of the six he took to equal the record for most victims for a ‘keeper in a World Cup game.
Undoubtedly the breakout star of this World Cup, Coetzee stands mid-pitch tapping a finger on his forehead. The bouncer that flew to the fence showcasing the power to extract so much from the pitch as well as the subtlety that followed would have made the fast bowling community, especially his mentor Allan Donald, proud.
There is a two-minute YouTube video shot around the time Coetzee made his South Africa debut. Elder brother Petrus introduces his younger sibling with personal trainer Herman Liebenberg, who says the fast bowler “thinks everything through” and “gives more than a 100 percent”. Petrus though plays the big brother as he takes one through the origin story of the head band.
“It started with our dad, when he used to mow the lawn, he used to put a sock over his forehead because he used to sweat a lot… I told him this is going to be my trademark and then Gerald stole it from me,” he grins. “It is almost like starting the car, putting on the alter ego when he wears the band before going on to the field like it is game time… It is super fantastic, super cool. We hope to see hundreds of people wearing the head band – the Coetzee Pioneers or something like that.”
The rookie in a head band would also have been taken note of by semi-final opponents Australia for the Eden Gardens pitch is likely to afford more help for pacers. Coetzee’s 4/44 is his best ODI figures in a nascent international career that began only in March.
For a player in his rookie international year who came into World Cup contention only because Anrich Nortje and Sisanda Magala were injured, Coetzee has been a big success on Indian pitches that have even tested Shaheen Shah Afridi and Mitchell Starc.
On Friday, the early discussions among commentators was on why South Africa left out Marco Jansen, arguing that the left-arm pacer who struggled in the heavy loss to India could have used the game to regain his rhythm. But with Coetzee having zoomed into lead wicket-taker status in his team, Jansen may have to compete for a spot in the final. A Lungi Ngidi achilles trouble may solve the selection problem, though.
Coetzee, Sri Lanka’s 23-year-old left-arm Dilshan Madushanka (9 games, 21 wkts) and Pakistan’s 22-year-old pacer Mohammad Wasim (4 games, 10 wickets), have showed no stage fright, but it is only the young South African who can still dream of glory.
Apart from his 18 wickets (7 games), he has been invaluable as a middle-overs operator, using his pace to provide crucial wickets. Of his haul, 13 wickets have come in the second power play phase from the 11th over until the 41st. Used mostly as second or third change bowler in this World Cup, he had to bowl the eighth over during the first power play after Ngidi limped off.
Although the in-form Aussie batters will be an altogether different challenge, Coetzee can look back at his second best spell of 4/50 at Potchefstroom in September that led to South Africa’s 111-run win over Australia and turned around a home series against Australia.
The South Africa team management also kept him out of the India game which the Proteas lost heavily. Both the teams had qualified before that Eden Gardens tie and it may prove a smart call not to have let the home batters face him if the two teams meet again in the final.
Although Kagiso Rabada, Ngidi and Jansen are seen ahead of the tearaway, former England fast bowler Steve Harmison is convinced Coetzee has sealed his spot for the semi-finals.
“What I liked about Coetzee in this game (vs Afghanistan) is he has gone and said ‘I want to play in the World Cup final’. Don’t just want to play in the semi-final, I want to make a difference in the semi-final,” he said during an analysis on ESPNCricinfo. “I will be very, very surprised if they leave him out for the semi-finals – because of his character, his attitude and at key times his ability to hit the deck hard on surfaces which have got a bit of inconsistency.”
Skipper Temba Bavuma admitted the thought of the final is already running through the Proteas camp. “Definitely, we’d like to be playing here again in front of a capacity crowd of 100,000 plus but we have the first obstacle to get over which is Australia, so we’ll focus our immediate energy and attention on that,” he said after Friday’s five-wicket win.
If it does turn out that way, they can bank on a rookie to rock the hosts’ boat.