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Fate, form denies Proteas

By Daniel Laidlaw
March 05, 2003 16:32 IST
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On such brief instances do momentous consequences sometimes hang. Without wishing to offend anybody's religious beliefs, one could be forgiven for thinking South African cricketers are collectively paying for sins in a past life. Since their re-emergence, they have endured some atrocious fate at World Cups.

In 1992, rain rules denied them a place in the final when they were cruelly asked to score 22 off 1 ball. In 1999, they missed a final berth final thanks to the famous (or infamous) semi-final tie with Australia. In 2003, history has repeated itself after a fashion with a twisted amalgamation of both kinds of ill fortune. Any number of minor incidents would have altered the outcome, and had Mark Boucher been better informed and looked for that single off what proved the final ball, South Africa would have topped Group B. But fate, and the Proteas' own disturbingly lacklustre form, has decreed the hosts exit in the first round.

Excuses abound, if they are desired. South Africa came off worse from a rain interruption against New Zealand, and everyone feels victimised to lose in such excruciating circumstances as they did against Sri Lanka. In truth, though, South Africa were on track to deservedly lose both those games. Against the three major opponents in their group, South Africa conceded 278/5, 229/1 in 37 overs, and 268/9. When one pictured South Africa marching toward the semi-finals, that image didn't include Monde Zondeki bowling short and wide of off and Andrew Hall being lifted over the midwicket boundary.

What happened to South Africa's bowling strength and discipline? Marvan Atapattu and Aravinda de Silva flayed them, as Stephen Fleming and Nathan Astle had done, and as Brian Lara and Ricardo Powell had done. Whoever was responsible, Allan Donald's situation was handled dreadfully. If Donald was intended to be part of the Cup campaign, then he had to find form against Kenya and Bangladesh and his experience trusted in crucial games like the Sri Lanka match. That he was not speaks of the selectorial and administrative disputes that plagued South Africa in 2001/'02.

Internal strife can be disguised against lesser opponents, but when the spotlight is at its harshest any disunity tends to get exposed. At one toss, Shaun Pollock couldn't tell the TV interviewer who was in and out of his team. Whether that was really the problem is only conjecture; either way, South Africa weren't themselves. Not unless their form can be attributed to the pressure of playing at home, a thought they likely won't want to consider.

One-day cricket is all about balance. Batsmen have to be able to both attack early and retain wickets; bowlers need to be both wicket-takers and restrictors of runs; captains need to maintain a healthy balance between attacking and defending. Teams also need a variety of players who can perform all the tasks. Ian Chappell made the point last time around, and it still holds: South Africa lack the variety of a quality spinner. All the other contenders fielded useful tweakers. Pakistan overlooked Saqlain Mushtaq against Australia and India to their detriment and South Africa apparently did not think enough of Nicky Boje to select him against Sri Lanka.

In different ways, England and Pakistan were also examples of unbalanced teams at the weekend.

At 135/8 chasing 204, Australia had little right to beat England on a slowing, turning pitch. All England had to do was seize the moment, to play the situation like any other match, and to apply pressure on the No. 10 with fielders around the bat. However, the affect of losing 13 consecutive games against Australia was shown when Nasser Hussain, in a case of not knowing when to press for wickets, continued to set his field as if it was inevitable the match would last until the final over. Strangely enough, that's exactly what happened.

England all but encouraged Bevan and Bichel to get Australia back in the game. Hussain should have realized by now that waiting for the Australians to make a mistake, to hand the game over, is not the high-percentage way to approach defeating them. Especially not when the limited-overs miracle worker nonpareil, Michael Bevan, is at the crease.

It did not matter that Bevan had only had one innings, against Namibia, to that point of the Cup, for he has done it all before. The longer any chase lasts, the better chance Bevan is of winning it. "You always need to do less than what you think," he was tellingly quoted as saying.

Andy BichelLike Ashish Nehra, Andy Bichel wasn't even supposed to play against England, only starting because of an (inevitable) injury to Gillespie. If Australia's depth was questioned, Symonds and Bichel have answered that criticism. Bichel's all-round performance was a just reward for a wholehearted cricketer whose team qualities are praised almost to the point of being patronising. Now he also has an amazing on-field display to attract plaudits, which must be infinitely more satisfying.

In big matches, why some players and teams tend to step up to seize the moment, and others don't, can't be said with certainty. But in what they say is chiefly a mental game, it's a safe bet that mentality, a winning mentality, plays a large part. Bevan has it, and Bichel has it. Hussain, against Australia, did not have it.

In both forms of the game, Pakistan are noted for the hostility of their bowling, which not only makes them one of the most exciting teams to watch but on odd occasions the most lethal. Where they erred in the World Cup, most notably against India, is in seemingly being seduced by the belief that all-out aggressive bowling necessarily equates to good bowling. It does not, and it left them unbalanced.

Whereas England froze on the cusp of victory, Pakistan were just the opposite, and in appearing to want to win too much over-attacked. What is usually a strength became a weakness, leading to those extraordinary early overs when Tendulkar's measured brilliance gave India an irrevocable grip on the game.

While it makes for spectacular cricket, attempting to knock the stumps down every ball does not make Shoaib Akhtar, for example, a better bowler than one who sticks to a disciplined line and length. Aggression without discipline just shows lack of control, something too easily dismissed. Shoaib clenching his fist and yelling at himself on the way back to his mark was one of the more dramatic Cup scenes, but what Pakistan really required was a calming of nerves, not increased motivation. By the time they regained some control, the state of the game was beyond repair.

Australia and India are at this stage the two best balanced teams of the tournament, and with their confidence and versatility should prove too much for the Group B qualifiers.

Just quietly, what are the odds of an Australia-Kenya semi-final at Port Elizabeth on the 18th? Unless New Zealand and Zimbabwe, both at least a game and a half behind Kenya, can extricate themselves from fifth and sixth place on the Super Six table respectively (and remembering they must play each other), Kenya have an excellent opportunity to qualify for the semis. Who would have thought they would be the dominant African side of the competition?

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Daniel Laidlaw