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April 6, 2007
When they arrived in Guyana, South Africa were well aware that nothing less than six points would suffice as they sought to seal a place in the last four of the World Cup. Having stumbled on home soil four years ago, failure is not an option for the team's stalwarts, many of whom won't be around in four years time.
Ahead of Saturday's game against Bangladesh, South Africa are right on course to leave Georgetown with the perfect record that they desire, having held off Sri Lanka in a thrilling finish before outclassing Ireland. Bangladesh, who upset India in the opening phase, haven't come close to beating South Africa before, but Graeme Smith was taking nothing for granted on a slow pitch that may aid the opposition's strengths.
"Bangladesh base a lot of their attack on their three spinners," he said, no doubt aware of the six wickets that they combined for against India. "They have a very young batting line-up that has been a bit unpredictable throughout the tournament. They have played aggressive at times and been defensive at others. I think they are caught a little in between on how they should play."
Victory over India increased the expectations back in Bangladesh to high-rise levels, and subsequent disappointments against Australia and New Zealand resulted in Habibul Bashar, the captain, being subjected to harsh criticism. Smith clearly doesn't envy his opposite number, but suggested that such things might be par for the course now that Bangladesh are no longer looked upon as a minnow.
"Now that they are in the Super Eight, there is a lot of pressure on them from back home to still carry on beating top teams," he said. "It's a different environment for them now, with their nation believing they should be winning these games more and more often."
South Africa had thumped India 4-0 at home in November, and there's no doubt that playing Bangladesh in their place represents a bit of a step into the unknown. "We watched a bit of the India game," said Smith. "They are a team, that if you give them any chance, they will pounce at it. You have got to start really well against them, and put them on the back foot as early as you can. You give them a sniff and they have got players who, under Dav Whatmore, have learnt how to win games."
Apart from the spin trio, Bangladesh's hopes rest largely with the young batting line-up that eclipsed India's much-feted one. "They are young and sometimes don't think about the situation they are in," said Smith, who himself was pitched into the big time pretty early. "They play with that sort of freedom.
"Due to their unpredictable nature, they can get off to a fast start, but can also collapse at times. I think it's about remaining calm against these sort of teams, who are unpredictable."
South Africa have four games in the next 10 days, and with fatigue bound to become an issue, there might be a couple of changes against Bangladesh. Andrè Nel should come into the reckoning, with Charl Langeveldt likely to make way, and Robin Peterson will also come into the equation if the think-tank decides that Makhaya Ntini requires a small break before bigger challenges.
"There are crucial games coming up for us," said Smith. "We have two games in Grenada against New Zealand and West Indies, and we need to step up going into the meat of the World Cup. We don't want do-or-die games against bigger teams."
The winner-take-all game that they'd love is a final against Australia, but Smith is wary of looking too far into the future. "It's the final most guys dream of," he admitted. "But the important thing is reaching the semi-finals."
Bangladesh's priority, as Whatmore said on Wednesday, is to avoid finishing last in the Super Eights. It makes for a fascinating tussle, between an ever-improving side with everything to gain and another that truly believes that they can go all the way after the heartbreaks of 1992 and '99.
Dileep Premachandran is associate editor of CricinfoFeeds: Dileep Premachandran
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Stats highlights from the fourth ODI between India and West Indies in Dharamsala