What is wrong with South Africa?

South Africa came in to the T20 world cup as one of the contenders, in spite of all the baggage they have been carrying ever since their re-entry to world cricket in 1990-91. Some of their players featured in the recently concluded IPL 3 and seemed to be in form, including the rejuvenated Kallis at the top of the  order, Albie Morkel performing well for his franchise (Chennai) and their bowling ace Dale Steyn, hustling batsmen even on flat Indian pitches with his pace and deadly swing. They have always been one of the best fielding sides and with players like AB DeVilliers, Mark Boucher,  and with their skipper Graeme Smith coming back in to the fold, they surely did look set for a semifinal spot (at the least) and on their way to erasing years of futility in international events. And then, the tournament began.

South Africa ran in to the hail storm of a century from Suresh Raina. Considering the fact that their spot in super 8’s was guaranteed (they just had to beat the lowly Afghanistan), they needed to throw caution to wind and chase down the Indian score, but instead, went about it, the only way they know best – conservatively. This was a sure sign of things to come. Smith and Kallis, after the early dismissal of Loots Bosman (cool name, indeed), took too much time to set the platform whereupon they left the middle order too much to do in too little time. Even with big hitting from AB and Albie, they lost by a comfortable 14 runs. They put in a dodgy performance against the enthusiastic but severly over-matched Afghanistan where SA were restricted to a below par 137.

In the super 8’s stage, they were scheduled to meet New Zealand, England and Pakistan, in that order. Looking at it, two wins should be easily possible. Up first against NZ, they smashed 170 in 20 overs, thanks primarily to the usual suspects AB and Albie. Once again, Smith and Kallis set it up for the middle order but at their own pace, which is widely considered slow. Chasing 168 against England (thanks to a double-quick 53 by Pietersen that spelled R-E-V-E-N-G-E), the SA openers once again flunked. Herschelle Gibbs, as was seen during IPL, seems to be well past his expiry date. Although he is still a brilliant fielder, he is getting in to the team purely on his reputation than his performance. The muddled batting of SA saw them getting bundled out for 129. In the make-or-break game, by the combination of bad bowling when it mattered, and a weak batting performance, SA let Pakistan off the hook and got knocked out of the tournament.

Based on what we have seen from England (already made the finals) and Australia (Semis), SA have all the requisites to have had a good shot at the trophy, and yet they have failed miserably (not as bad as India, who didn’t win even one of their super 8 games). They have 3 bowlers who can bowl consistently in the 140k range (Steyn, Morne and Langeveldt), a very useful fast bowling allrounder (Albie), good spin option in Botha, and a batting order boasting of Kallis, Smith, AB, Boucher and their ever present athletic fielding. So what is wrong, then? Did they choke? I don’t think so. They never put themselves in the big game situation to actually choke, as confirmed by their former selector Craig Mathews.

We never played well enough to choke. South Africa should be able to pick half a team against Afghanistan and still win, and we didn’t beat them that comfortably. We were horrendous against India and ordinary against New Zealand, and comprehensively beaten by Pakistan.

Well, may be we could explain this away with that evil IPL. Everyone in India is blaming the IPL and its IPL night parties for it. Would someone in SA do that, too?  Mr. Mathews obliges.

The IPL doesn’t help other teams. The only South African who benefitted from playing in the IPL was Jacques Kallis. The rest of them all sat on the sidelines.

Of course, he conveniently forgets that Steyn, Albie featured prominently for their respective IPL franchises. AB played in at least half the games for his. In the middle of all the muck that Craig Mathews throws around, he seems to have to spotted the actual problem:

We were very tactically unaware. The Powerplay overs are absolutely vital, and we never made proper use of them.

I think the former SA selector Hugh Page nailed the problem with SA’s T20 fortunes:

“We seem to have a conservative approach to Twenty20 cricket. I’d rather see us having a go, even if we end up losing. I hear a lot of talk from our guys about playing risk-free cricket. If you’re not going to take a few risks in a Twenty20 match, you’re going to lose.

Harsha Bhogle wrote an article on cricinfo before the tournament, “To the fearless goes the spoils“. That – is so true in T20. India won it in 2007 because they played fearless cricket. SA need to get out of their conservative, almost automaton cricket, to play with some flair instead of doing it as if there is 20 pound dumbbell hanging from their testicles.

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