South Africa v New Zealand, Champions Trophy, Group B, Centurion September 24, 2009

Batsmen fail New Zealand again

Daniel Vettori could have been forgiven for thinking that he was still marooned in Sri Lanka, but the relatively sluggish pitch was still no excuse for another listless New Zealand performance with the bat. Having reached the semi-finals of the last two ICC 50-over events, it will take an almighty effort for them to now repeat that feat. Apart from a brief passage of play when Ross Taylor and Grant Elliott batted with something approaching fluency, this was South Africa's match from start to finish, and just the kind of outing they needed after being thrashed by the Sri Lankans.

New Zealand's batting woes were put into perspective later on by AB de Villiers. The very best batsmen somehow manage to look as though the conditions aren't a factor, and de Villiers did that today, stroking the ball with panache on his way to an unbeaten 70. On a spin-friendly pitch at Trent Bridge in the ICC World Twenty20, he had been a class apart as India were overwhelmed in a low-scoring game. Here too, he batted with as though free of the restrictions that the surface imposed on other batsmen.

"The first prize is always to win the game," Graeme Smith said later, when asked if there had been one eye on the scoring-rate as well. "Compared to Tuesday night, the wicket was a touch slow, and you had to work harder. But we got it to a point where we could have a good go."

The game changed dramatically towards the end of the New Zealand innings. With Taylor and Elliott in tandem, even 250 appeared to be a possibility. But with Wayne Parnell showing a Botham-esque knack for taking wickets without bowling especially well, the last five wickets fell for just 11 runs. And having erred by not picking a second specialist spinner, defending 214 was never going to be easy.

Vettori defended the selection by citing team balance, but that was an odd argument considering that he came in at No.9. If Kyle Mills and Gareth Hopkins are better batsmen than their captain, then the world has yet to see evidence of it. "We would have [played Jeetan Patel] if Jacob Oram was fit," said Vettori. "Jake offers us that balance. Without him, we felt we needed an extra batsman. It [the top-order batting] is an area where we haven't been performing as we wanted to."

South Africa too had their alarms while batting, but Hashim Amla, Jacques Kallis and Mark Boucher all chipped in with crucial contributions, while de Villiers seized the initiative in mid-innings. Kallis, in particular, seems determined to shed the dour tag, and there were some magnificent drives and clips off the pads before he had a flail at a delivery from Shane Bond.

"Today was more of the level we expect of each other," said Smith. "Wayne and Dale [Steyn] bowled with intensity and in the right areas. Wayne's proved that he's got the skill. Today, he showed that he could bounce back." Parnell himself was brutally honest about a patchy spell. "Compared to Tuesday, I felt better, but I still went for a lot of runs," he said. "But to pick up five wickets is pretty good."

Steyn and de Villiers apart, South Africa's real star was Roelof van der Merwe, who bowled a tidy spell after taking a stunning catch to start New Zealand's slide. Those that know him say that he has the temperament of a fast bowler, and his captain was full of appreciation for the role he played in the win. "He's one of the most competitive guys you'll see," said Smith. "He always plays at a 100% and his skills are right up there. He gives it a lot of revs and gets turn as well. His consistency's very good. Both he and [Johan] Botha add value in different ways."

Smith again gambled at the toss, but this time there was no disaster to send a holiday crowd home with sullen faces. "I blamed our lack of skills for the loss [against Sri Lanka]," said Smith. "We all did. If we hadn't bowled well today, it wouldn't have turned out the way it did."

Vettori said, tongue firmly in cheek, that six weeks in Sri Lanka was perfect preparation for their next game at the seam-friendly Wanderers, and it'll need a herculean effort from his pace bowlers to get their side back on track in this competition. South Africa have an English obstacle - hardly Becher's Brook, given recent results - to overcome before a semi-final place can be confirmed. That opening-day loss, which put expectations into some perspective, could yet be a blessing in disguise.

Dileep Premachandran is an associate editor at Cricinfo