Like a lawyer passing the first stage of his bar exam at the sixth attempt, South Africa’s cricketers had ample reason to celebrate on Wednesday night when they won their first World Cup knockout match, 23 years after the first.
They travel to Auckland today, Friday, after a day off in Sydney to savour both the enormity of the margin and the long-term gravitas of their achievement at the Sydney Cricket Ground, a thumping nine-wicket win against Sri Lanka with a staggering 32 overs to spare.
“It sends a very powerful message to all the other teams in the tournament,” said legendary Australian captain Allan Border, “and frankly, I’m a lot less comfortable for Australia now having seen this performance.”
AB de Villiers spoke with understandable joy, but was equally quick to dampen any premature celebrations: “You want to do the people that support you proud. It was a big pressure game and we just showed everyone that we can do it, so I am very, very proud,” De Villiers said.
“On the other hand, it means absolutely nothing. We’re going to have to start over again and the hard work starts now. We didn’t come all this way to say that we made it to the semifinal of a World Cup.”
Something exceptional happening
Try as he might to play down certain aspects of the victory, De Villiers could not avoid the magnitude of some. When Kumar Sangakkara, on the back of a world-record four consecutive one-day international centuries, required 41 deliveries to score his first six runs, there was obviously something exceptional happening.
“It was up there,” the captain responded when asked whether it was the best bowling performance he had seen. “We’ve done some amazing things before but it was definitely the most important performance in the most important game to date.”
Morné Morkel was Scrooge and the Terminator combined. Unable even to offer petty singles to the batsmen, he was trying to end their stay at the crease with every delivery – in conjunction with a captain who set attacking fields and urged his lifelong friend to bowl for wickets rather than dot balls. De Villiers has seen, and overseen, a huge change in Morkel in recent years.
“He talks with confidence, a lot of confidence, and he’s taken on a lot of responsibility. It’s not only Dale [Steyn] as the leader; it’s him, as well. He’s lifted his performance, but it’s not just about that. He walks the talk … I don’t think you’ve always seen that in his career. He believes that we can run through sides now,” De Villiers said.
Steyn was similarly awesome, although perhaps he is taken for granted: “He is brilliant in most games but he raised a gear,” said Jacques Kallis from London, where he is working as a pundit for Sky TV. “It happens subconsciously with him, depending on how big the game is and how much the team need him. Look out for the next two games,” Kallis said, ominously.
Quinton de Kock’s return to form has been a long and increasingly painful time coming, but his unbeaten 78 from just 57 balls has left him in a “good place” and the team in an even better one. De Villiers was dreading the prospect of reclaiming the wicketkeeper’s gloves and will now be able to focus on batting and captaining for the remainder of the competition – one game or two.
“It was a crucial innings,” he said. “We’ve all been in dark spaces, like he was in this tournament. All credit to the guys who kept backing him. They must have been tempted to let him go and for me to take the gloves. But he had a fantastic game, took a few crucial catches and batted with amazing confidence.
“To go through a bad patch like he has and to come out there in a quarterfinal of the World Cup, with that much confidence and get through it, shows what kind of player he is and what he can achieve in his career. I’m looking forward to the next few games to see what he does at the top of the order,” De Villiers said.
Just two games to go, then. Can South Africa continue to get away with their outrageous gamble of playing seven specialist batsmen and just four proper bowlers in their quest for glory?
“Yes, they can,” said Border. “Especially if Duminy bowls as well as he did against Sri Lanka. That wasn’t the performance of a part-timer. But if he needs someone else to chip in, then they can still do it. If the four front-liners bowl as well as they did again in two more games, then South Africa’s ‘weakness’ doesn’t have to be exposed. Strengths cover weaknesses, if they are strong enough.”
The Proteas play their semifinal at Eden Park in Auckland, no matter whether it is against hosts New Zealand or their quarterfinal opponents, West Indies. Defeat against Pakistan there two weeks ago may still hurt, but the experience of the unique conditions will serve De Villiers and the team well. It’s not just the farcical boundaries at the home of All Black rugby, but also the unusual floodlights.
“We just have to find a way, that’s all that matters at this stage. We have to think on our feet and make a plan. New Zealand are the form team, but maybe it will be the West Indies. We will think about that nearer the time.”
It’s tempting to say the World Cup monkey is off the Proteas’ collective back. De Villiers, however, would suggest it’s only its grip that has been loosened. Two more wins are needed to floor it.