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How South Africa lost the semi before the toss

AB de Villiers surely ranks amongst the deadliest T20 cricketers in the world. (AP Photo/Theron Kirkman)
Roar Pro
25th March, 2015
1

This World Cup was crying out for closer contests, for ebbs and flows, just to invigorate another lifeline into a sport which is threatening to become a money-spinner for the bigwigs.

Bangladesh, Zimbabwe and to an extent Pakistan helped us with some hope. The associates gave unarguably their best performances in the history to remind us what a sport this could be.

Then the semi-final between New Zealand and South Africa provided a much-needed shot in the arm.

New Zealand have won many a neutral heart this tournament after giving us two contests to hold dear: against South Africa and Australia.

The spirit in which they play is a eulogy in itself. However this transition happened way before the World Cup.

After the tragic death of Philip Hughes, New Zealand were playing a Test match with Pakistan at Sharjah and didn’t bowl a single bouncer out of respect. They didn’t even have a close-in fielder for the entirety of the Test match. They just went about the motions, didn’t celebrate a famous come-from-behind win, and were aptly led by Brendon McCullum, who hit a double century at a strike rate of over a hundred.

It is a testimony to this spirit that in such a close contest we had no verbals or slurs. Can you expect the same in the other semi-final – I would not get my hopes up.

I hate entitlements, I hate when journalists throw the word ‘deserve’ around loosely, but gosh New Zealand deserve to go all the way, just to add another chapter to history where a humble yet bold, aggressive team won both on the field and in the hearts of the fans alike.

I could go on further about New Zealand, but there was another team which wanted this win, possibly more dearly.

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It is always painful to see someone lose such a close contest, but it is this pain that reminds us to cherish these individuals, to cherish such contests. It reminds us how elite sport is a game of moments, inches, and could-have-beens.

Where did it go wrong for South Africa, or where did New Zealand really win it? Did the rain and Duckworth/Lewis calculation botch the Proteas’ chances? Did AB de Villiers cost South Africa the match? Did they choke?

South Africa’s true fans, fans of cricket who have lived these circumstances in different matches, will go beyond these questions.

New Zealand – arguably the best fielding side – uncharacteristically also grassed a few half-chances, and missed hitting the stumps. For most of the match it seemed that neither team actually took the match by the scruff. Both potentially first-time finalists were on their nerves and were playing too polite – you first; oh no, you go ahead; it’s OK, I insist.

The biggest moments came before the toss. Vernon Philander for Kyle Abbott, the humble yet aggressive approach for New Zealand, and the biggest change of all, South Africa’s selection choices for their fifth bowler.

In the space of nine months before the World Cup, South Africa’s all-rounders went from Jacques Kallis and Ryan McLaren to polite dibly-dobly pies offered by Farhaan Behardien, De Villiers and JP Duminy.

Kallis obviously retired, then McLaren was inexplicably dropped for just one bad series against the best ODI side on their home turf. But for what? Add to that the fact that Steyn and Philander didn’t live up to their billing.

In all matches, De Villiers chose the worst moments to bring on his fifth bowler. Against India and Pakistan, he chose when both teams had got off to decent but not run-away starts, at the end of 10 overs; setting a platform for the two teams to launch from. India took full toll, Pakistan not so much.

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In the semi-final, he bowled Duminy to new-at-the-crease Ross Taylor, who is vulnerable at the start and who until this match had always started very slowly. He took Imran Tahir off in favour of Duminy when Martin Guptill was not picking him and when 300 was a long way to go.

McCullum, MS Dhoni or Michael Clarke would never have done the same. But was it an unplanned move? No! De Villiers had followed the same script earlier.

The moments after the toss (a lucky break for South Africa) were filled with nerves. Rilee Rossouw played a Rohit Sharma-eque innings – he could be one to look out for. South Africa accelerated well ahead of what I had expected, mostly to account for the fifth bowler, and for the first time in the tournament McCullum was befuddled.

Did untimely and unexpected rain affect the result – who can say? But South Africa had made up for the blip with David Miller and the acceleration prior to the break. 298 was a fair approximation (310 would have been no complaints whatsoever) by Duckworth/Lewis.

But New Zealand have always found a way to come from behind in the last 12 months. With the diversity of the individuals who have stepped up, they were always in the game, no matter the score.

But one should be able to defend 300 in a knock-out, particularly with South Africa boasting the top Test-bowling attack.

This loss could be owed to equal parts of luck, form, tactics by ABD, injury issues but most significantly the selection of the fifth bowler.

No article on South Africa’s performance would be complete without discussing whether they choked.

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A popular definition of choking in sports is “fail to perform at a crucial point in a game or contest as a result of nervousness”. Were the Proteas nervous? They wouldn’t be human if not. Was De Villiers, in particular, nervous with those two half chances? His super-human abilities belie such arguments, but for my faith in humanity I want to believe that all of us, even the super-humans, are actually not infallible, nerves or otherwise. But I wouldn’t say AB lost South Africa the World Cup – he put them there in the first place.

Can we expect such a nail-biter in the other semi-final? My money is on no. Both Australia and India are hardened campaigners and whoever catches a sniff will in all likelihood drive it through.