India v South Africa, Super Eights, World Twenty20, Colombo October 2, 2012

India and South Africa can only blame themselves

If they allow themselves to reflect on the cruelty of the format, both South Africa and India would be distracting themselves from reality: they were inconsistent, scratchy, confused, and poorly led

When the circumstances of the final Super Eights match of this World Twenty20 fade from memory, a cursory look at the scorecard would point to a heart-stopping thriller. In reality an embarrassment was averted when the match stopped one run short of a tie: a Super Over would have been farcical.

Twenty20 is the ficklest form of the game because matches can turn the narrowest of channels. So fickle in fact that no pre-tournament favourite has ever won the World Twenty20. India would point to the luck of the draw and the fact that Australia's heavy defeat to Pakistan in the penultimate match left them with a near-impossible task, and South Africa would rue the nature of two of their defeats - they allowed Umar Gul, batting at No. 9, to score 32 off 17 balls to lose with two deliveries to spare, and the one-run defeat today.

That the day began with all of the four teams with a chance to make it to the semi-finals would point to the openness of the ground, but if they allow themselves to reflect on the cruelty of the format, both South Africa and India would be distracting themselves from reality: the truth is that their early flight home was well-earned. They were inconsistent, scratchy, confused, and poorly led.

It could be argued that the winning teams in Group 1 have had an easier ride than in Group 2, and that in the latter group it came down to whose bad day was the worst. But there is another way of looking at it. Both Australia and Pakistan made sure that their better days were overwhelmingly good. No one can suggest that the best two teams from the group of death didn't make it to the knock-out stage.

Australia swamped India and South Africa, and even in their worst defeat, they made sure they did enough to secure their semi-final berth. And facing elimination after a familiarly nervy defeat against India, Pakistan put together such a massive act of strangulation that it knocked South Africa out and left India clutching despondently at a mathematical possibility.

In principle, India were better-placed than Pakistan at the start of the day because they would go in to their game knowing exactly what they needed to do. But Pakistan made the task so stiff that India would have to play well above themselves to even have a sniff. India staggered to their highest total in the Super Eights, but it was at least 30 runs short.

Having maintained their impeccable record of never making it to the final of a World Cup, South Africa will leave Sri Lanka even more despondently. They arrived at the tournament with a glow and an aura. The bowling carried menace up front, they had a crafty spinner, the batting had the combination of class and muscle and depth, and they could be always be relied on to be sharp of the field.

And there was something else. AB de Villers became the first South African captain to publicly confront the biggest taboo for his team. Yes, they had choked, he told a stunned audience before the tournament in a manner that suggested a coming-to-terms with a troubled past and a belief they could break free of it.

They began the tournament with such force - their pace bowlers were frightening even in a seven-over lottery against Sri Lanka - that they headed to the Super Eights with the air of a team certain of its destiny. It ended with the captain conceding that he was leaving with his head spinning, and admitting, completely unprompted, that the team had choked once more in the game against Pakistan. Stepping out of a state of denial can be counted as progress, but in reality, South Africa failed even to advance to a stage where they could suffer a proper choke.

The bowling largely held up, but the batsmen failed South Africa massively. Hashim Amla's lack of runs at the top order was inexplicable, Jaques Kallis never got going, and bafflingly, de Villers, until the final match, never thought of himself worthy of the No. 4 spot. Against Pakistan, he appeared at No. 6, a spot behind Farhaan Behardien.

De Villers made no excuses. He admitted that his team had never clicked in the second half of the tournament. But his appeal to the South African fans not to give up hope is unlikely to find resonance. Not winning a single game in the business part of a tournament must rank a new low even in the context of their wretched record at world events.

On paper, India had a much better tournament. But MS Dhoni's labeling it "satisfactory" rang equally hollow. Admittedly, they found themselves in the tougher group, but everything else was in their favour. They played all their matches at one venue - the only team to do so - and more crucially, the venue suited their game. After some early life in their opening match against Afghanistan, the pitches at Premadasa became slower and drier.

It was not the bowling, never expected to be more than adequate, that failed them. Incredibly, they bowled out their opponents four out five times. But in the match they were bad, they were shown up so spectacularly by Shane Watson and David Warner that it pushed them, in the final analysis, fatally down in the net run-rate equation.

But it was the batting that didn't turn up. The problems with the openers, growing glaringly obvious with each match, deprived the team of a base. The middle order revolved entirely, and unhealthily, around Virat Kolhi. And apart from the match against England, the late flourish never arrived.

And ultimately, Dhoni can't escape scrutiny. He has been a remarkable leader on many accounts. But some of his selections and tactics on the field have been perplexing. After watching Pakistan bowl 18 overs of spin to neuter Australia, he chose to pick one spinner against a team comfortable with pace; didn't bowl his lead spinner till the 10th over, brought on Rohit Sharma before using his last specialist bowler, and gave away easy singles while defending 121.

India is the land of milk and honey for Twenty20 cricket. It is the laboratory where international players sharpen their Twenty20 skills. Yet India have failed to reach the final stages of the last three World Twenty20s. Tough questions and tough decisions can't wait forever.

Sambit Bal is the editor of ESPNcricinfo

Comments