South Africa v Sri Lanka, Champions Trophy, Group B, Centurion September 22, 2009

Ill-prepared hosts found slumbering

24

If South Africa do wish to win a major competition, perhaps hosting it isn't the best way to go about it. Back in 2003, an inability to make sense of the Duckworth-Lewis chart at Kingsmead saw them eliminated before the Super-Six stage. Then, two years ago, Rohit Sharma's defiance with the bat and a tigerish Indian display in the field saw them fall short of the target that would have ensured qualification for the World Twenty20 semi-finals. Till that point, they hadn't lost a game in the tournament.

Now, in a competition that was supposed to be the perfect stage for them to reemphasise their new status as the world's top side, they find themselves at the wrong end of an embarrassingly one-sided defeat on the opening day. At least now there'll be no confusion. There's no margin for error. Another defeat, and it's off to bed without the No. 1 dessert for Graeme Smith and his boys.

Everything that could have gone wrong today did, but in truth South Africa didn't help themselves either. Winning the toss and bowling first, with both Roelof van der Merwe and Johan Botha in the side, struck several people as being slightly bizarre, especially with Muttiah Muralitharan and Ajantha Mendis in the opposition ranks. There was no great smattering of grass on the surface, and little evidence to suggest that the opening bowlers could scythe through a Sri Lankan line-up with several batsmen in terrific form.

Smith's bowlers then compounded his error by bowling dross. Dale Steyn was the honourable exception to the general rule. Tillakaratne Dilshan, unlike many batsmen from the subcontinent, thrives on the cut and pull, and young Wayne Parnell proceeded to feed those two strokes with distressing regularity. After a couple of overs, it should have been pretty obvious that this wasn't a surface on which you strove for variation, but the scattergun approach was persisted with until the Sri Lankan run-rate touched seven an over.

Even after the game though, Smith insisted that he wouldn't have done anything differently. "The wicket played really well throughout," he said. "We were just tentative with the ball. We lacked the basics. I don't know if our not having played for three months had anything to do with it, but Dilshan played really well upfront.

"We weren't able to hit the channels. We bowled both sides of the wicket. It was only after 16 overs and the first drinks break that we got some sort of control."

Questions also need to be asked of how South Africa chose to prepare for this event. The other leading sides had meaningful competition [though how meaningful Australia will consider their 6-1 romp over England remains to be seen] before they journeyed to the highveld, while South Africa's only outing was against a side that can generously be called West Indies C.

Prior to the match, Smith had spoken of how they would attack Mendis based on what other teams, notably India and Pakistan, had done against him. That ignored two factors. Firstly, the Indians struggled horribly against him last year, both in the Asia Cup and also the Test series that followed. It was only with increased exposure that they developed some semblance of a tactic to combat him. As for Pakistan, they're blessed with some freakish bowlers of their own, in addition to being pretty handy against spin. To think that gung-ho would work just as well for South Africa was to tempt fate, and the memories of two Durban cock-ups should have been reminder enough that you shouldn't do that.

"The first time you see a bowler, it's always a challenge," Smith said of Mendis. "He bowled well tonight. We'll be better for the experience. He showed great control and variety."

There were words of encouragement for Parnell - "he's still young; he's going to have his ups and downs" - but the time for talk is now long gone. "Today was a good wake-up call" was Smith's final assessment, but if he and his team don't rouse themselves from off-season slumber on Thursday, dreams of undisputed-champion status will become yet another nightmare.

Dileep Premachandran is an associate editor at Cricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • thirdmanboundary on September 23, 2009, 14:32 GMT

    SAfrica boast that their side is packed with all rounders. Well, for starters, they should discount Albie Morkel, who is one of the most costly, least successive bowlers on the international circuit. He goes regularly for 7 or 8 an over and lacks penetration. By all means play him as a batsman, but don't ever give him the ball. Instead, insist that the (newly revamped, skinny as Kate Moss) Jacques Kallis bowl his full 10 overs. He shows must better control: he's a line-and-length runway model.

  • rohanbala on September 23, 2009, 14:27 GMT

    Chandau - I fully endorse your views on the choice of power-play.. While some captains (like Smith of SA) mess up the game by inserting the opposition to bat after winning the toss, some of them really forget when to utilise the batting power play. In the final match of the 7-match series against England, it was baffling to see Ricky Ponting choose the batting power play after the arrival of the tail-enders with the result only a small portion of the PP was used before the England bowlers terminated the innings.

  • JimDavis on September 23, 2009, 13:47 GMT

    it is not just ODI and 20/20 major events. You can also add the home test series loss to Australia. Given the events before and since that series, how they lost it, god only knows. Still, SA are not out of this yet.

  • Itchy on September 23, 2009, 13:36 GMT

    Yet another example of SA trying to emulate Aus in the chest-beating "we are the best" stakes and failing miserably. Listen up boys - if you talk the talk you have to walk the walk.

    SA will make the semis (only because NZ and England are so weak) but will likely fall there.

  • KingOwl on September 23, 2009, 12:44 GMT

    All these journalists are going on and on about how SA, the sopposed #1 team messed it up. The fact of the matter is that there is absolutely no difference in the abilities of the top 3 or 4 teams in the world right now. SL may be #5 in the rankings - but they are as good as any in the world. SA may be ranked #1, but they are no better than SL or Aus or even India. I am amazed at how journalists keep repeating what everybody else is saying. Where is the ability to think originally?

  • mrgupta on September 23, 2009, 11:59 GMT

    What a match! What was Smith thinking when he asked SL to bat first? Immediately i was reminded of the similar decision India's then Captain Mohd. Azhar took to ask England bat at Lords and then his counterpart Gooch made 333. Does SA think their bowling attack is like Jeff Thomson and Lillie who can blow away the opposition and that too against a good opposition like SL? I am sure they were aware they were not contesting a BD or Zim team. Current SL team has the best bowling attack in the world today and nobody would want to chase a target against them. Being tactical is one thing but this sounded like arrogance!

  • Johncricket on September 23, 2009, 11:13 GMT

    I agree with most of what's been said. As a proteas fan, the decision to be bowl first came as an absolute shock, and the way in which Smith has responded to the criticism is a little worrying. Protea fan is absolutely right in saying that world cricket is something that is far from static, and teams will continue to improve regardless of what the (stupid/irrelevant/harmful) ICC rankings have to say. cricket is a game that produces statistics, not one that is governed by it. the south africans have fallen into the trap of believing themselves to be the best due to some statistical figure which puts them at the top. the greatest players and the greatest teams have always been the ones that show true character in spite of what the figures or records suggest. let's hope that for once we keep our mouths shut and work with our feet. South africans are growing tired of talking about "our potential" and "our time". let's stop the complacency and just win the damn thing.

  • Vilander on September 23, 2009, 9:37 GMT

    SA are good believe it they can still make it to the final and hope not to meet SL again, when Smith decided to put Srilanka in i felt like banging my head into the wall..he just did not know Mendis and Murali and Malinga and Angelo and x and y and ... SL did this same ambush and constrict tactic on india in the last series, their batting is suspect it could fire on a odd day, but their bowling, their bowling you dont want to chase even 150 under lights against them, stupidity.. but SA were good we ( ind) did not even make 190 under lights against them in colombo..

  • Philip_Gnana on September 23, 2009, 7:46 GMT

    Well...What was Graeme thinking when he won the toss and put Sl in to bat? SL had just lost two games batting second under flood lights in Colombo of all places. Tactics and know how.. talk about it. This was a shambolic display by the Proteas. Dilshan at his best. Angelo Mathews is actually far better than he is perceived and is getting better and better. Lets not forget that he has come through the ranks and was the captain of the Un21 team too. Sanga & Jaya in form again. SA have a lot to do. I think cricket has got in to their heads and all that No 1 stuff. They have totally under estimated the Sri Lankans. Sanga's words..we are performing at 80%....hmmm. If this is 80% then imagine a 95%-100% performance. Philip Gnana, New Malden Surrey.

  • fanofteamindia on September 23, 2009, 7:37 GMT

    Smith got the toss horribly wrong.I was shocked to see him asking Sri lanka to bat on a good batting pitch.Srilanka always like to bat first,put a decent total and defend it with their very good bowling attack.They have a not so great batting line up which crumbles under pressure more often while chasing.If dilshan and jayasuriya are out early they struggle a lot to score quickly.I think with this win Srilanka have almost qualified to the semis.I don't see new zealand or england winning against sri lanka.

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