Two things come to mind when you say South Africa and World Cup in the same breath. One is perennial favourites, and the other, well let’s just hold onto that one for a bit. When they finally broke out of international recluse, the Proteas were quickly out of the box as they say in racing. In the 1992 tournament Down Under, they were one of the much fancied teams to go on and lift that crystal trophy. It was not just their cricket but something about them endeared them to the masses who thought this team has it in them. And this feeling has been the same ever since, be it 1996, 1999, 2003, 2007 and even now. They are always one of the strongest contenders to be crowned champions!
Now to the second point and that is obviously to do with the results in each of those years. In Australia-New Zealand, they were robbed by a ridiculous rain rule. Four years hence, by a marvellous century from Brian Lara and then in England, Herschelle Gibbs dropped an important catch in the Super Six stage and then Allan Donald ran himself out in a maddening moment in the semi-final. When they hosted the World Cup in 2003, there was more hope than ever before yet somehow Shaun Pollock managed to read D/L score-sheets wrong. It had to happen they said, and in the West Indies then, no single team was a match for the rampaging Aussies. Under-achievers, perennially, one would want to say but the world loves to label them chokers instead.
Look at the fifteen names South Africa have chosen to represent their country: Graeme Smith (captain), Hashim Amla, Johan Botha, AB de Villiers, JP Duminy, Francois du Plessis, Colin Ingram, Jacques Kallis, Morne Morkel, Wayne Parnell, Robin Peterson, Dale Steyn, Imran Tahir, Lonwabo Tsotsobe and Morne van Wyk. Over the years some pretty big names have gone out of many such squads previously chosen. You think of Hansie Cronje, Pat Symcox, Lance Klusener, Allan Donald, Shaun Pollock, Mark Boucher and Jonty Rhodes, and these are names that ought not to have gone out empty handed. Of the current lot, if not all, then atleast Smith, Amla, de Villiers, Kallis and Steyn have done enough over the years to not be added to that previous list of under-achievers.
The problem is that merely wishing is not going to win them anything. Considering the psychological battle they will be fighting whilst playing out on the field, it is a given they will want a safety first approach in most situations. Try and play as naturally as possible, minimize the risks or hedge some of them, go in for the quick points for qualification to the next stage, make the right call on winning the toss, reading the D/L scores right, so on and so forth. It wouldn’t be wrong to say that when Smith and his think tank sit down to formulate strategies, the first thing they will do is list down everything that could possibly go wrong, and then dwell on how to counter it. To win this mental battle, they will want as few troubles as possible from on the field and considering they are in the same group as India that would be no easy ask.
Besides the co-hosts, England and West Indies are also in Group B along with Ireland and Netherlands. Unlike the other group though, which boasts of three pretty straight forward minnows, this one has Bangladesh in it. It is not to say that South Africa are sure to lose out in this match-up in Mirpur on 19 March. Rather it is to imply that it will be a slippery game, one of the last few in the league stage and which team in the world is most prone to slipping? Yes, you got that one right; South Africa will be the most wary team in this group.
But again, you can’t always win with such an attitude. Winning a tournament of this scale takes some doing, some out of the box thinking and out of the ordinary achieving, especially in conditions that are a long call away from ones they are used to. They last played ODIs in the sub-continent a year back when Sachin Tendulkar alone thwacked them for 200 runs. That is what they will have to counter here, pitches with no life on them and where batting first is of high premium. So now the question, do the names chosen reflect optimal balance to counter that?
On evidence from the just concluded tour of India, where they beat the Men in Blue 3-2 in the ODI series, both yes and no can be the answer. The particular point of interest though is their balance didn’t look at all good and they were missing just the one player – Jacques Kallis. It is the all-rounder that they find their most able match winner still, after all these years and on the cusp of this big tournament, the mind wanders to the 1998 Champions Trophy or the ICC Knock-Out as it was known then. He scored a century in the semis against Sri Lanka and then took five wickets in the final against West Indies, winning them this one major trophy single-handedly. Nothing has changed in nearly thirteen years.
If he is unfit or off colour, the batting lacks in spine and then they have to play the extra bowler. This inevitably lengthens their tail and with Boucher missing and de Villiers keeping wickets, that is nearly two batsmen short in a tournament that is surely to be decided in terms of which team bats the deepest. Playing the extra bowler helps though; you have Steyn, Morkel and Parnell keeping Kallis company, and you can go in for two spinners along with them. It will help check the flow of runs and then Smith, Amla, de Villiers, Duminy and others can ride piggybank on Kallis, again, to chase them. This one man makes them tick and he never stops ticking himself.
So this time too, they are one of the favourites to make it to the last four atleast, and thereon they are expected to kill off their own chances in a most inexplicable manner, find a new way to choke perhaps. Who will they disappoint – their fans or their critics?
© Cricket World 2011