ICC Cricket World Cup 2011 / Features
New Zealand v South Africa, 3rd quarter-final, World Cup 2011, Mirpur
Horses for courses, and a plan for every event
The most impressive aspect of South Africa's performances on the way to the quarter-finals has been the way they have tried different tactics in all their matches, and almost all have paid off
Firdose Moonda in Mirpur
March 24, 2011
Three matches stand between South African cricket and history. Not just any three matches: three knockout matches. It's reached that stage of the tournament that South Africa has never summited before. As much as they don't want to be reminded of it, they have always looked capable of going all the way; now more so than ever, because of the new attitude and sharpness of focus that they've come into this tournament with.
South Africa were unusually experimental in choosing their XV, including 11 World Cup debutants, three frontline spinners and leaving out experienced finishers like Mark Boucher and Albie Morkel. Their squad was not picked based on reputation, but rather they were the 15 players that the selection committee thought would best suit conditions in the subcontinent: people who could bowl and bat against spin; combinations that would exude subtlety and not brute force; and those who were being rewarded for seasons of good form. It was a clear break away from the norm.
Everyone, they said, was on an equal footing; this wouldn't be an effort by 11 playing members and four water boys, but a collective mission in which everybody would be integral. The players wouldn't go on this journey alone; the coaching staff and the support staff, which includes the psychologist who was with the Springbok rugby team when they became World Champions in 2007, would be with them every step of the way. All of them arrived wearing green wristbands with, among other things, the abbreviation RAFT - resilience, adaptability, faith, trust - as a way to remind themselves of what they were coming out to achieve.
This is the kind of softer thinking that wasn't there before, although they were able to retain the element that made it seem as though they were preparing to go to war and there was more at stake to this than a trophy. Even when you add pride and take into account the long wait South Africa have had for this, there was something bordering on gimmicky about the build-up.
It may have been driven and borrowed from what happened during the football World Cup in South Africa nine months ago. Then, an initiative called Football Friday encouraged people to wear the national team jersey on Fridays, which got switched to a cricket initiative in the World Cup period. Some of the football marketing bordered on jingoistic and the marketers this time threatened to go mad again. Luckily, the team did not.
Their actions on the field have reflected a seriousness, dedication and commitment that have created a real reason to believe that this tournament will be different. Every match has had its standout moment or period of brilliance for South Africa; in each contest they've had a plan that's worked.
There was the masterstroke of opening the bowling with Johan Botha against West Indies' left-handed opening pair. He removed Chris Gayle with his third ball. There was the way they built an innings of 351 for 5 against Netherlands after a slow start, with JP Duminy's 40 off 15 balls propelling them at the end. In the third game, they exploited the weakness of Kevin Pietersen by using left-armer Robin Peterson to open the bowling, and he was able to bag not just one but three early wickets. The rest of that match didn't go according to plan and the batting collapsed on a difficult pitch, exposing what then looked like a fragile middle order.
Come game four, against India, that was rectified. The bowling attack had to do a powerful reining in job when the Indian batsmen got off to a flier, but then it was up to the batting to chase down a big total. AB de Villiers' half-century was the core and then Faf du Plessis, Botha and Peterson finished it off. By that stage, South Africa looked to have played the perfect game, seeing off pressure and winning when it mattered, but they didn't take the foot off the brake.
Against Ireland, the middle order had to perform again and then Morne Morkel's exemplary use of extra bounce sealed the match. Bangladesh saw the strength of the reserves come through, with Lonwabo Tsotsobe's opening spell showing that five weeks on the sidelines had only had an enhancing effect on his bowling.
Throughout the group stage, South Africa's performances have been the result of careful planning and intelligent execution. They've shown more flexibility than South African teams have ever displayed in the past. They have not been scared to innovate, to try different strategies and to take risks. More importantly, they have also been able to improvise when it's been needed most, because the ride to the top of the group has had its moments of stickiness.
When they lost early wickets against West Indies, de Villiers and Hashim Amla's level heads carried the chase; when they were off to a slow start against the Dutch, they left the burst for the right moment; the loss to England, on a tricky surface and in a pressure situation was turned into a positive, one the team say they have learned from and will know how to deal with when the situation comes around again; they treated Ireland and Bangladesh as a strong team should treat a lesser one; and now they find themselves three matches away from greatness.
Smith has said they won't change their attitudes; they'll keep playing their process-driven form of cricket and they know the results will come. They may need to change something tactically; they may need to think on their feet and adjust their game plans, as in the space of 100 overs the game will change. They may need to change with it, but from what South Africa have shown, they will.
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On tour in the UK, Firdose Moonda witnesses a fine comeback, visits the country's oldest pub, and squeezes in some yoga lessons