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

Ill-prepared hosts found slumbering

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