Can this brilliant South Africa side finally rip off 'chokers' tag?
They're good enough to hammer everyone – including England tomorrow – but that's been said before...
Saturday 05 March 2011
When Graeme Smith was asked about choking before the World Cup he got tetchy.
For a moment his listeners feared that he was so annoyed that he might, well, choke.
But in this competition South Africa have more previous than casino bankers and while their captain may dislike being reminded he is well aware of it. Hence the reaction. The response to the doubters so far has been deeply impressive and South Africa have won both their opening games with consummate ease. They play England tomorrow and England, as the world knows, have recently been defeated by Ireland.
South Africa's time, it is being widely touted, has finally come. Smith's team piled into the West Indies and then dismantled the Netherlands in about five minutes. AB De Villiers has hit prime form, scoring his 10th and 11th one-day hundreds in successive matches, Hashim Amla, the world's No 1 ranked one-day player, has found his touch.
They have already gone in to one match with three spinners, with the singular off breaks of Johan Botha opening the bowling in the first. In Dale Steyn they have the best fast bowler operating anywhere, one who will not be deterred by slow unresponsive surfaces because he is the sort who can flog life from dead horses in cricket-pitch terms. His sidekick is Morne Morkel and he is not far behind.
As yet, neither Smith nor the other powerhouse, Jacques Kallis, have offered much, but they are too accomplished to keep failing. The new secret weapon is the Pakistani leg-break bowler Imran Tahir, who qualified to play for South Africa in the nick of time and has already stamped his imprint on the tournament with seven wickets. They look a wonderfully balanced side, they look potential winners and England had better watch out tomorrow.
But hold hard there. All this has been said before about South Africa and they are indeed a bunch of hard-nosed, shrewd cricketers. The theme of "this time is their time" has been used before – in 1999, 2003 and, admittedly with less gusto, in 2007. Each time they were eliminated, reaching the semi-finals on the first and third of those occasions, beaten by Australia in both. The one thing South Africa have in common with England is that neither country has yet won the World Cup.
If they can shake off the humiliation of the Irish defeat, England should consider plainly that they have a chance of knocking South Africa out of their stride. Eighteen months ago, England met South Africa in the second match of the Champions Trophy. It looked a mismatch. South Africa were at home and much the more bedded-in team. England still did not know what their best team was. But that night in Centurion, despite a battling century from Graeme Smith, England prevailed after making 323. In some ways, it was the match that made them begin to think that they really were making progress as a one-day side and could do something at this World Cup.
Improving their self-esteem at a stroke, England went to South Africa again later that winter for a tour and beat them again in the one-day series, the first England team to pull that off. Since the last World Cup – when England were habitually awful and lost by nine wickets in a group match – the sides have met eight times and England have seven victories to one.
These are factors in helping England to shed any inferiority complex that they might have caught after more recent events. South Africa will be aware of them too, though Smith has made much of peaking at the right time.
The side beat India narrowly in a five-match one-day series at home last winter, coming from behind, and undoubtedly feel good about themselves at present. If there is a weakness it may be in their fielding where Kallis, Smith and Tahir are not the most nimble-footed individuals.
Smith is giving up the one-day captaincy after the World Cup having taken the job eight years ago when he was only 22. There is only so much one man can do after being at the helm for 144 matches (it will be 151 if they reach the final).
It is a surprise that Smith, robust individual and natural leader that he is, has never quite ensured that his side have lost the chokers tag. He was not around in 1999 when they tied a gripping semi-final they should have won against Australia and went out on the countback rule. Nor was he there when they went out in the first phase at home in 2003, again tying a match they should have won, this time against Sri Lanka.
But they were easily beaten by Australia in 2007 and they have failed to do themselves justice at major tournaments under Smith as they did under all his predecessors. Lose to England tomorrow and all the old doubts could begin to invade their souls. The trick will be to do to England what they did to West Indies and Netherlands.
If De Villiers' innings of 107 from 105 balls and 134 not out from 98 have been the cornerstone of their batting so far, the new man, Tahir, has been formidable as a bowler. The pitches were bound to suit him here but few could have expected that he would make quite such inroads so soon.
Tahir should be known to some of the England batsmen, since he has appeared for four counties in the Championship since 2003. If they have not come across him because of England duties (another failing in the system) then they should have pumped the selector Ashley Giles for advice about him this week.
Giles is the visiting selector and his day job is as director of cricket at Warwickshire where Tahir played 16 Championship matches last year and took 56 wickets at 24 runs each. He was not exactly wreaking havoc but day in day out he was asking questions which were not always easily answered. Giles should have unloaded all the information he can, especially about his googly. South Africa are on a roll but rolls can sometimes become stuck in the throat.
South Africa's World Cup In Numbers
241: The total amount of runs batsman AB de Villiers has struck in his two World Cup innings. An unbeaten 107 against the West Indies was followed by 134 against the Netherlands.
351-5: The total against the Netherlands was the third highest by South Africa in a World Cup. It is also the second largest innings by any team in this year's tournament.
5.85: The average run-rate of South Africa from their two opening matches. England's is 6.46
2: De Villiers is the only batsman to have scored two centuries in the tournament. South Africa have three individual tons to England's one.
221: The number of runs that Hashim Amla and De Villiers put on for the third wicket against the Netherlands, the highest partnership by any pair in this World Cup.
4.13: The runs per over conceded by the South African bowlers in their opening two games. England's is an expensive 6.72
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