Cricket World Cup: India will be South Africa’s biggest challenge in the group stages

Cricket World Cup: India will be South Africa’s biggest challenge in the group stages

India have never beaten South Africa in the World Cup, but that doesn’t mean their group clash on Sunday isn’t going to be tough. In fact, it’s arguably the toughest match South Africa will have until the knockouts. BY ANTOINETTE MULLER.

Before the knockout stages, before the badgering about the overused c-word, before a possible meaningless match against the United Arab Emirates, South Africa find themselves playing in one of the most important matches of their World Cup.

In Melbourne on Sunday, South Africa will take on India, a team whom they have never lost against in a World Cup. Even though they will probably still make it through to the next round even if they lose, this match is significant. It will serve as a psychological victory, both in the fact that India have a way of getting under South Africa’s skin, and in overcoming their first big opponents in this World Cup. As the defending champions and with a batting line-up that has long shaken the myth that Indian batsmen can’t bat against the short stuff, it will certainly be South Africa’s toughest challenge in the group stages.

The two teams last played each other towards the end of 2013, a series South Africa easily won on home soil. But India in a World Cups is a different beast. For South Africa, the focus is all about taking all 10 wickets. They did this in their opening fixture against Zimbabwe, and in both the ODIs the two teams played in South Africa back in 2013, so do have the upper hand statistically.

South Africa will have had a seven-day break from competitive cricket when they take on India. This is just another kink in the curious scheduling that has seen co-hosts New Zealand play three times in a week while some teams have not completed a single match. That said, it’s one South Africa is probably grateful for. Pace ace Dale Steyn, who bagged a five-for the last time the two teams met in a World Cup, has reportedly been struggling with sinusitis. He did not take part in South Africa’s training on Wednesday. The extra time to recover will be a welcome boost for the bowling attack, especially against a fearsome batting line-up.

Virat Kohli is fresh off a century and Suresh Raina’s 74 off 56, the bulk of which came at the back end of the innings, was a reminder that South Africa’s bowlers will have to rely on variety in order to halt India’s charge. Raina’s sheer disregard for the value of his wicket and his knack for all three stumps in an attempt to flick over the legside boundary could be a source of much frustration.

That’s why South Africa have not been idle during their off time. Under the watchful eye of consultants Gary Kirsten, Mike Hussey and Charl Langeveldt, they have practiced everything from throw downs to hitting cones at yorker length and practicing with moving targets (ie their own batsmen) in the nets.

The frontline attack will pick itself, but as ever, the remaining balance of the team will be debated. Temptation might be there to swap Imran Tahir for an extra quick and rely solely on JP Duminy to fulfil the spinning role, but considering Tahir has been the go-to player for the middle overs, South Africa will have to carefully balance their options.

The other is that South Africa could swap Farhaan Behardien for Wayne Parnell. On paper, it might look like this weakens the batting line-up, but in theory, it doesn’t. Behardien has been unconvincing as a batsman and on current form, is no worse than Parnell. As a left-arm option and with genuine pace, Parnell will add some much needed variety to the attack. If South Africa does feel that the batting is left too exposed by this jumble around it could lead to Rilee Rossouw being drafted in to replace Tahir and bolster the batting line-up. South Africa often talk about a “horses for courses” approach and it’s something that could certainly become relevant in Melbourne.

The Melbourne wicket tends to suit the quicks far more, something which is underscored by the fact that just two of the top 10 wicket-takers in ODIs at the venue are spin bowlers. Shane Warne, unsurprisingly, tops the list with 46 wickets at an average of 22.60 in 28 matches while Peter Taylor is fifth with 30 wickets in 21 matches at an average of 23.30.

Those stats won’t be the be all and end all, but considering Tahir has never faced India in ODIs and the fact that India’s batsmen are brought up on a healthy diet of spin, if there were to be any big changes, it’s likely to come in the form of Tahir being given reprieve in some way. Since he has been South Africa’s best bowler for the last year, though, it’s hard to see that happening.  DM

Photo: India’s World Cup cricket team walk off the field together after defeating Pakistan in their first match of the 2015 World Cup Cricket tournament in Adelaide, February 15, 2015. REUTERS/David Gray


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