February 15: vs Zimbabwe, Hamilton
Beware the opponent with nothing to lose. Elton Chigumbura’s team has been infused with a new sense of belief and purpose by experienced coach Dav Whatmore and don’t have to worry about the weight of expectation – there isn’t any.
Seddon Park is a small ground with a traditionally batsman-friendly wicket – it’s where Richard Levi scored his record T20 century for South Africa – so the power and experience of the Proteas top order should be enough to overwhelm the men in red. Should be.
Prediction: SA win by 70 runs/six wickets
February 22: vs India, Melbourne
Already shaping up as the biggest game of the entire group stage with more tickets sold for this fixture at the greatest cricket venue on Earth than any other.
As always at a neutral venue anywhere in the world, the crowd support will be overwhelmingly behind India. Local hotels have been able to double the price of their rooms with Indian supporters travelling from far and wide to be at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.
There is a plausible theory that whatever total India’s all-star batting line-up are able to post, it won’t matter because the bowlers won’t be able to defend it. Rarely has a major team been so lopsided between bat and ball and it should result in the majority of the crowd returning to their overpriced accommodation disappointed.
Prediction: SA win by 20 runs/four wickets
February 27: vs West Indies, Sydney
For the third time in four fixtures, the Proteas will be up against a team unburdened by the fear of failure or the weight of expectation.
The men from the Caribbean were so divided on their recent tour of South Africa that one player refused to dress in the team changeroom, preferring to use the corridor outside.
But that’s the strange thing about cricket – unlike other team sports, a group of talented individuals can, occasionally, win matches without ever having to look each other in the eye, never mind exchange words. It’s hard to see that happening, however.
Prediction: SA win by 15 runs/two wickets
March 3: vs Ireland, Canberra
The Irish top order can pack a solid punch and they will throw everything at the Proteas on one of the flattest pitches in the country, suiting neither seamers nor spinners. This is where Australia scored 330 against the Proteas just a few months ago with Morné Morkel and Vernon Philander conceding 80+ and 70+ respectively.
But the good news is that house prices in the Australian capital are considerably lower than at the coast because AB de Villiers and his men might as well abandon the campaign, change identities and settle in the city if they lose. The after-party is the event to look forward to – the Irish throw one of the best in sport.
Prediction: SA win by 100 runs/seven wickets
March 7: vs Pakistan, Auckland
By this stage of the tournament, the prospective quarterfinals will be taking shape with the top-placed team in Group A playing the fourth-placed team in Group B with the second playing third. The importance of the victory – perhaps to avoid playing Australia or New Zealand – may well give the game an extra edge.
Injuries to senior players and the banning of star spinner Saeed Ajmal for a suspect bowling action have combined to leave Pakistan with the least experienced squad of all the major nations. Eden Park may be one of the world’s iconic rugby stadiums but the boundaries can be a nightmare for bowlers inexperienced in defending them – particularly against innovative batsmen. Danger lurks.
Prediction: SA win by 60 runs/five wickets
March 12: vs United Arab Emirates, Wellington
The last time the UAE played in a World Cup, in 1996, they were captained by a man so naive in the ways of the cricket world that he walked out to face Allan Donald wearing a sun hat. Fortunately, its brim crumpled on impact with the bouncer Donald immediately bowled him, providing just enough cushioning to prevent serious injury. Zultan Zarawani was the only Emirati national in the squad – which is presumably why he was captain.
Not much has changed 19 years later – except that the random assortment of Asian immigrants are far better trained and prepared.
They include three names to look out for, in an altruistic sort of way. Batsman Andri Berenger was highly rated in his native country when he was chosen for the Sri Lanka under-19 team, while two 43-year-olds are comfortably the oldest men in the tournament.
Mohammad Tauqir is a modest opening batsman but star player Khurram Khan averaged 53 with the bat and 31 with the ball in his 10 official ODIs.
Prediction: SA win by 200 runs/10 wickets
Quarterfinals: March 18-22, Adelaide, Sydney, Wellington, Melbourne
Having beaten Scotland, Afghanistan and England during the group stages, Bangladesh are the dark horses in the last eight but the occasion is too much for them and they are swept aside by De Villiers’s table-topping team by a convincing margin.
Australia beat West Indies, New Zealand beat Pakistan and Sri Lanka beat India in the other quarter-finals. Despite a top-order wobble and some shaky bowling at the death, the Proteas just manage to hold their nerve to overcome Sri Lanka in the first semifinal while a titanic clash of the Australasian rivals sees New Zealand overcome the odds to stun favourites Australia and set up a final against South Africa at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on March 29.