Crunch time in clash of equals
Call it destiny or the quirk of the draw, the battle at Eden Park will ensure that one of the teams shed the baggage of history to make it to a maiden World Cup final. The trophy will still be a match away but for South Africa and New Zealand, one a perpetual underachiever in global tournaments, the other perpetually punching above its weight but always finding the last two steps just that bit steeper, the semi-final represents an opportunity to break free from the scars of the past. And scale a height never achieved.
As contests, the quarter-finals were a dampener. Apart from the hour when Wahab Riaz electrified the Adelaide Oval with a spell as fearsome and inspired as ever seen in a one-dayer, the matches never acquired the intensity of a knockout clash. But perhaps for the first time since the semi-finals came into existence, the four pre-tournament favourites, and undeniably the four best teams in the tournament, are left standing. Upsets bring delight and the currency of unpredictability, but the best teams provide the better chance of an even contest.
Because of the way the group matches panned out, though, each semi-final will the contested by opponents with common attributes. Australia and India are historically the two most consummate teams in the World Cup knockout games, with six titles and nine appearances in the final between them. They will not be awed by the stage, fazed by the expectations, or freeze when it comes to the last steps in closing out the most important match of their lives. One of New Zealand or South Africa will achieve a massive breakthrough tomorrow: but it cannot escape either team that failure will condemn them to familiar territory - for New Zealand the glass ceiling will remain unbroken; for South Africa, even worse, the continued stigma that has repeatedly held them back will stick.
But they have more in common than just their past. The teams are in similar mould. Both strong on fast bowling but carrying a spinner who can prove decisive. In Imran Tahir, South Africa, in their most significant break from the past, have an attacking legspinner who is in the best wicket-taking form of his career. Daniel Vettori is the canny old fox for New Zealand, bowling with the control and guile that many thought had gone absent after a long, injury-induced lay-off.
Both teams have powerful, muscular batsmen whose eyes will delight at the outrageously short straight boundaries at Eden Park, but they do also possess batsmen with the temperament and skills to dig in.
Most of all, though, they have been by led from the front by two men of contrasting styles but a common passion. AB de Villiers, who has taken one-day batting to a height so dizzy that bowlers must now feel grateful just not having to bowl to him at the end of an innings, had led with his bat. He has been refreshingly candid with his emotions, not holding back from berating his team in public.
He described the loss to India as an embarrassment, and ticked his team off for not turning up against Pakistan. Teams and captains in the past have bristled at the "C" word, but de Villiers has confronted it by saying that this team is not going to choke. That's a brave thing to say because if they do, these words will come to bite him with an even greater ferocity. And psyching yourself up to play a certain way can sometimes be counter-productive. In the 2007 World Cup semi-final, the South African batsman came out looking so charged and so determined to match Australia's fire that they had lost five wickets in the first 10 overs with two men, one of them Jacques Kallis, being bowled charging to the bowler.
Their road to the semi-final has been choppy but, in reaching the semi-final, they have already had their best World Cup. Their first knockout win was achieved in some style and authority, and the way they strangled a red-hot Kumar Sangakkara with pin-point accuracy and spectacular in-the-ring fielding was remarkable. The only blip - if it can be termed that - in that performance was that it didn't test them in a chase, historically their biggest weakness. That could be their challenge to overcome tomorrow.
Brendon McCullum is not New Zealand's best batsman. He battered the new ball against England and Australia, but the job had been done by the bowlers. It's the force of his leadership that has driven New Zealand.
His boldness has been a product of imagination and tactical nous. On the smaller grounds in New Zealand, containment is a hopeless aspiration with the new rules. Men on the fence are little value if the ball keeps soaring over their heads. Instead he has stationed them behind the stumps and relentlessly sought wickets. Consequently, New Zealand have conceded the least number of runs among the teams left in the competition that have played seven games (Australia's lower figure was helped by a washout). But because the wickets have come upfront, the bowlers haven't been challenged at the death. That could be their biggest test against South Africa.
Even though they have lost more knockout games than South Africa - seven in nine matches - given the limitation of their resources, each of their World Cup campaigns, including their tearful loss to Pakistan in 1992, has been considered a triumph. But this time the nation, and the world, expects more. Undoubtedly, New Zealand will buoyed by a passionate audience tomorrow - the country's leading newspaper front-paged a letter from McCullum urging the fans to turn up at the ground to cheer the team - but expectation brings its own weight.
Unlike the quarter-finals, there are no clear favourites tomorrow, and that makes the prospect so compelling. The match could turn in one spell, one hitting spree, or even in a moment through a blinding catch or a spectacular run-out.
But pray, let this not be decided by mistakes. On top of defeat, that's not a burden you wish on cricketers.
Sambit Bal is editor-in-chief of ESPNcricinfo. @sambitbal