South Africa will be quietly pleased that they ended up playing Sri Lanka and not Australia in the quarterfinals of the 2015 Cricket World Cup. They now need to find the focus that has quite clearly been lacking ahead of their match on Wednesday. By ANTOINETTE MULLER.
Three of the World Cup’s top five run scorers will go toe-to-toe when South Africa and Sri Lanka meet at the Sydney Cricket Ground on Wednesday. The first of the quarterfinals will see AB de Villiers, Kumar Sangakkara and Tillakaratne Dilshan step onto a pitch where South Africa managed to score over 400 runs just a few weeks ago.
That total was something of an anomaly, though – the par score for batting first in Sydney is just 250 for the last ten years, dropping to 240 in the last five. Just thrice in the last five years has the team batting first gone past the 300-run mark, and two of those scores came during the World Cup. Still, with two teams packed with batsmen ploughing for plentiful harvests at the moment, the recent high-scoring efforts must be a tasty prospect. Adding to the allure will be the fact that neither side’s bowling attack has actually fired at full tilt.
South Africa’s frontline trio of Vernon Philander, Morne Morkel and Dale Steyn has been good, but they have been far from their best. Philander’s pestering line and length has kept batsmen guessing, while Morkel’s scare tactics have roughed up plenty of players. Steyn has been the one bowler who hasn’t blossomed like many expected – this despite the fact that the pace ace declared prior to the tournament that he was “ready to knock guys over”. In Imran Tahir, South Africa found steady control and consistency, but he will need real support in order to keep a lid on one of the best batting line-ups of the tournament.
Sri Lanka’s bowlers have been the opposite of convincing, and they have largely been able to hide behind their tremendous batting line-up. An injury to Rangana Herath and a host of other niggles have, at times, left Sri Lanka with just three genuine front-liners. New Zealand, Australia and even England were able to smash over 100 runs in the last 15 overs of the Sri Lankan bowling innings in the tournament thus far. Lasith Malinga remains their biggest strength, but if batsmen can see him out, there is plenty of time to bash the part-timers. This means that the woefully out-of-form Quinton de Kock will have to channel all his focus and energy into seeing out one of the wiliest bowlers at the tournament. Should he survive, the stage will be perfectly set to emerge from his current slump all guns blazing.
South Africa’s performances in this tournament have been very Jekyll-and-Hyde. They went from a slow start against Zimbabwe to looking at sea against India, bashing West Indies and Ireland and losing the plot against Pakistan, and then wrapping this up slowly but surely against the United Arab Emirates. The captain, too, has been chalk and cheese. One day he had nothing good to say about his side and said they maybe weren’t as good as they thought they were; in the very next sentence he said they could still win the World Cup. A few days later he insisted that South Africa was one of the best teams of the tournament. You can’t blame De Villiers too much for that, though. There is no point in constantly talking down his team, although the constant shifting is puzzling.
These inconsistencies, in action and in word, betray the team’s pre-tournament swagger and suggest that perhaps South Africa has not found its focus yet. Losses are expected, yes; it’s sport, and you can’t win them all, but it is the manner in which South Africa has lost that will be of most concern. Their woeful form when chasing will be soothed somewhat knowing that, in the last five years, more teams have won fielding first at the SCG than they have batting first. This could also have the opposite effect and see them implode under the pressure of expectations.
Both teams have played at Sydney in this tournament. South Africa has the advantage of having won there, while Sri Lanka was dismissed for 312 in pursuit of 376 runs set by Australia. That might offer the most miniscule confidence boost, but it’ll mean nothing if the Proteas can’t channel their focus before they resume their troubled relationship with ICC knockout event in two days’ time. DM