South Africa, cricket, the World Cup and the impossibility of victory

The coveted but elusive ICC Cricket World Cup trophy

The coveted but elusive ICC Cricket World Cup trophy

If South Africa beat Sri Lanka on Wednesday in their cricket World Cup quarterfinal, it would be our maiden knock-out victory in the game’s show piece tournament since we first competed in Australia in 1992.

I suppose most fellow South African cricket fanatics know that miserable little fact already.

The closest we have come to winning a knockout game is the heart-breaking semi-final tie with Australia in 1999, a game we should have won  but where we lost our heads completely instead.

It’s arguably the worst moment in South African sport since re-admission in the early 1990s, and not in my humble view the greatest one day game of all time (Mine would be the record-breaker in 2006).

In truth, the cricket team has borne the brunt of the nation’s on-field sporting disasters (rugby, soccer, golf, athletics, swimming even rowing have all produced champion teams and athletes). Our World Cup cricket teams have promised so much, but delivering so little.

In fairness, it hasn’t all been about choking in knock-out games, South Africa’s run at World Cups has been ended by a mixture of bad luck and a lack of big match temperament.

brian mcmillan

Losing in the first of many cruel fashions in 1992 against England

Perhaps if the rain had not intervened in the semi-final loss in 1992 to England (when a possible 22 runs off 13 balls became a silly 22 runs off 1 ball) we might have gone on to win the tournament on our first try. What a fairy tale win that would have been! And who knows how it might have changed our fortunes in later tournaments.

Instead, the ‘choker tag’ has steadily gained weight from the quarter-final loss to the West Indies in 1996 (after we were unbeaten in the group stages), the1999 tie/loss to Australia, the 2003 exit at the pool stages after miscalculating the run chase in our Sri Lankan game affected by rain), the 2007 big choke against Australia in the semi-finals and 2011 loss to a weak New Zealand team.

So here we are again – at the crossroads – ready to wear the choker tag again if we fail against a good but easily beatable Sri Lankan side, who are already playing up their superior psychological mindset through their coach, Marvan Atapattu:

“[Our better records in World Cups] is something that will work in their minds.”

Even if we do pull off a maiden knockout win, there’s still two more games and unbelievable pressure – the kind in which Australia, Sri Lanka and India have thrived but we have succumbed too like a mismatched boxing opponent.

South African captain AB De Villiers – arguably the best one day player in the world – has been boasting of the team’s status as the favourites – despite two bad performances against India and Pakistan in the group stage. He told ESPNCricinfo:

“I 100% believe we are the best team in the tournament here.Those two losses in the group stage did hurt us a bit but we are past that now. We know where we could have won those games and we weren’t that far off. We know we are very close… three games away from taking that World Cup home.”

Does he believe that? And more importantly does the team?

I have my doubts, this is a team peppered with great players (De Villiers, Dale Steyn, Hashim Amla to name three)  but it’s not played like a great side…well not yet anyway.

I would love to be proved wrong. Nothing would give me more satisfaction than watching the Proteas lift the coveted trophy – it would make up for a lot of years of hurt.

But my gut says otherwise. I’d be surprised if we beat Sri Lanka on Wednesday and even more surprised if we go all the way.

(My final prediction: Australia v New Zealand, Australia to win)

How to win cricket world cups: win the toss, bat first

ICC-Cricket-World-Cup-Trophy-2011

The illusive ICC World Cup Trophy

I never stayed till the end of the India v South Africa game on a steamy night at the MCG.

As the sixth wicket fell and the sea of orange, white and green Indian flags waved triumphantly in the packed arena, and as we (meaning South Africa) began our all familiar world cup capitulation, I got up and left.

India had scored over 300 and we were about 150/6 with 20 overs remaining. It was a hopeless situation, one South African fans are all too familiar with at world cups, particularly at the knock-out stages.

In five world cup knockout games South Africa have played since their debut in 1992, they have lost four and tied one (THAT game against Australia we should have won in 1999 before the greatest choke in the history of sport).

1999: snatching defeat from the jaws of victory

1999: snatching defeat from the jaws of victory

To win world cups is a mixture of skill, luck and nerve: we have plenty of the former and not much of the other two.

But if South Africa do – as expected – make the quarterfinals and then somehow win their way through to the final, this is the surest way to win the competition:

One
Win the toss

Two
Bat first

Three
Score at least 250

(If we lose the toss, bowl them out for under 150 or less)

Winning the toss is important, but only if you take advantage of it by choosing to bat.

In the 10 world cups played to date, seven have been won by the team batting first.

This is not all that surprising. Cricket is a game of nerves, of who blinks first.The pressure is so much greater batting second. Recovery is so much harder if you get off to a poor start, and if it’s a day/night game, conditions are usually tougher batting second under the lights.

That’s unless you’ve got only a small total to chase.

In 1996 Sri Lanka chased down 240 odd against Australia and in 1999, Australia only had to score 132 against Pakistan.

The only time a team has chased down a sizeable total and won the world cup was in 2011, when India chased down 274 set by Sri Lanka, winning with 10 balls to spare thanks to an MS Dhoni special.

The cardinal error though is to win the toss and choose to field. Only one team has done that and ended up on the winning side: Sri Lanka against Australia in 1996.

In the first three world cup finals won by West Indies twice and then Australia, on each occasion, the team that won the toss chose to field and lost the game. It happened again in 2003 when India won the toss, chose to field and Australia amassed 359/2.

So my message to AB De Villiers, if we somehow start playing well enough and make it through to the final is simple:

Make sure you win the bloody toss and for heaven’s sake, BAT FIRST (and then post 300 plus!)

I know, I know…

But, we are allowed to dream, aren’t we?