Optimism grows before every World Cup despite South Africa never winning a knockout game, and the 2015 edition is no different. Will this time be different?
This year’s belief is based on the brilliance of key individuals rather than the depth of the squad, but can a handful of players paper over some glaring cracks and win a tournament? Only with one, essential ingredient.
A favourable draw in the knockout stages, particularly the quarterfinals, will be essential. Fourth place in Group A will face first place in Group B, and the second-placed teams in each group will play the teams that finish third in the opposite group.
If South Africa finish top of their group they will be highly unlikely to face Australia in the quarterfinals – assuming Australia won’t finish fourth. New Zealand, too, are unlikely to finish last of the qualifying teams, which leaves England or Sri Lanka as the likely opponents.
Struggling to ignite their campaign
Neither side has enjoyed their best form in the build-up to the tournament and, if they struggle to ignite their campaign in the first month, will provide the Proteas with a less problematic route to the semifinals. Far easier, for example, than what would happen if Australia and South Africa both lost a game or two of their six group matches and finished in second and third places respectively.
Form and fitness are both fickle allies of the competing nations. Untimely injuries and peaks and troughs in individual form have affected the course of many a series and tournament. They are quickly forgotten once the trophy has been claimed but they have every bit as much an effect on the outcome as runs and wickets. Just without the headlines.
A loss of form for AB de Villiers, Hashim Amla or Dale Steyn could derail the campaign but a rich vein of it for someone unexpected – Wayne Parnell or Quinton de Kock, for example – could be the stroke of fortune that changes everything.
The Proteas will be gambling far more than any of the other major nations during the tournament, hoping against hope that the three gaping cracks in their armour are not exposed. The first is “death bowling”, second the lack of a genuine No?7 all-rounder and the third is using two part-timers to make up the fifth bowler’s allocation of 10 overs.
Steyn is the best to cope with the big-hitting final overs, and he is, at best, a reluctant volunteer. Morné Morkel’s success at the end of the innings has been in direct, inverse proportion to what he has achieved at the top of the innings for the past three years and Vernon Philander has neither the pace nor variation to cope with the final overs. Could Imran Tahir seriously be trusted with the job?
Farhaan Behardien is neither a front-line batsman nor a bowler. He arrived in the squad as a last-minute injury replacement for JP Duminy in Australia in November last year and performed tidily enough with the ball to warrant further consideration. An innings of 63 from 41 balls in the fifth game of that series persuaded the selectors that he was a better bet than established all-rounder Ryan McLaren.
Sensibly committed to a policy of seven specialist batsmen in late-summer conditions that are likely to see two new balls claim early scalps in many games, the Proteas management has designated Behardien to be that man. Not only is it a gamble, it is almost certainly unfair on him without a single experience of winning a game for his country from that position – or any position.
If and when the Proteas find themselves at 200-5 needing 260 to win with seven overs to go, will Behardien have what it takes, physically and emotionally? Nobody knows. He’s never been there before, never mind done it. The pivotal position in the XI is occupied by a novice with a modest track record.
Before Jacques Kallis retired, the plan was to have Faf du Plessis at No?7, a man of proven temperament and fierce will. Of course, he didn’t need to bowl with Kallis in place. But then Du Plessis was promoted and suddenly the country that has produced more all-rounders than any other for 25 years couldn’t find one worthy of the name.
Every other team will employ part-time bowlers during the tournament, but they will be sixth, seventh or even eighth options. If they become expensive or a liability, their captains will be able to withdraw them from the attack. It will be different for De Villiers. Not only does he know he needs a combined 10 overs from Duminy and Behardien, so do his opponents.
It has a double-whammy effect. Not only are the part-timers vulnerable to attack, the four front-liners also know they cannot afford to have the “bad day” that befalls every specialist bowler from time to time. They will all have to bowl 10 overs, no matter how many runs, no-balls and wides they are leaking, and opposition batsmen will surely capitalise.
When Graeme Smith said last week that South Africa’s strength was its “new-ball bowling”, he was also politely indicating that “old-ball bowling” was its weakness. But Steyn, Morkel and Philander represent the most potent attack in the tournament with two new balls and have routinely reduced opponents to 80-5 only to see them recover.
The simplest way for the Proteas to win the World Cup will be to eliminate their weakness – the death overs. They must either score so many runs that defeat becomes almost impossible, as they did twice against the West Indies, or they must bowl the opposition out before they reach the death overs. Such victories occur around once every 20 matches between major teams, and even more rarely at major tournaments. South Africa may require three in a row to become world champions.