Mauled by the Tigers
How many times in your life will you watch the No. 1 side in the world comprehensively outclassed by one ranked eight places lower? This match, three weeks on from that epic triumph against India at Port-of-Spain, will linger long in the memory for the manner in which a young and vibrant side embarrassed one that appeared to rest on its laurels. Had the South African cricket board not changed their crest to the Protea, the headline-writers would have had a field day with variations on "Tigers maul Springboks".
And it really was a mauling, with South Africa never even remotely in the game once Jacques Kallis' attempt to heave the super-slow Syed Rasel fell safely into the hands of mid-on. When the spinners came on, each left-arm and each so very different in their methods, the old gremlins against slow bowling resurfaced. The third Powerplay produced three wickets and just five runs, with Justin Kemp and Mark Boucher swishing and wafting at thin air.
It was the sort of performance that vindicated those who insist that South Africa are still not on the same ball park as Australia. The Australians work the slow bowlers around far better - it helps to have one or two of your own to practice against - and they certainly wouldn't have succumbed without a semblance of a fight. Between them, Abdul Razzaq, Saqibul Hasan and Mohammad Rafique bowled 29.4 overs for combined figures of 6 for 96, even better than what they managed to push the Indians on to skid row.
"I guess that conclusion has been around a while," a dejected Graeme Smith said, when asked if the result highlighted South African frailty on slow pitches against slow bowlers. "But we played pretty well to beat Sri Lanka on this surface. Compared to the way we played against Sri Lanka, it's like chalk and cheese."
The same three spinners had routed India, but according to Smith, the 67-run defeat was the result of an overall meltdown. "There's no right thing to say," he said. "We just have to take our pain. It's a big loss for us and we are hugely disappointed. We couldn't give it our best shot and didn't get the basics right. We didn't play the kind of cricket we are capable of, and it's hard to take any positive from any facet of the game today."
In hindsight, the key moments came in the 36th over, with Bangladesh's run rate still stuck below four an over. Kemp had bowled just seven overs in five previous games, but with Andrew Hall apparently having a quadriceps problem, he was pressed into action. The consequences were disastrous, with Aftab Ahmed teeing off and the momentum shifting.
"I don't want to take the credit away from Bangladesh," Smith said. "They played superbly. We gave them the opportunity and they grabbed it with both hands. We let ourselves down very, very badly."
With Ashraful having played himself in and wickets in hand, the charge came in the final ten overs. When it did, South Africa had no answers, with Charl Langeveldt and Makhaya Ntini coming in for especially harsh treatment from Ashraful and the swashbuckling Mashrafe Mortaza.
"His innings changed things," Smith said, when asked about Ashraful, who eased to 51 from 64 balls before driving and paddle-sweeping a further 36 from just 19 balls. "He set them up, worked the field well, and kept us under pressure right from when he came in to bat."
With no Hall to bowl cutters at the death, and no Robin Peterson to provide the notional spin option, there was a sameness to the attack that both batsmen pounced on. Smith defended his team selection, but changes are certain when they play West Indies, with Andre Nel having bowled himself into the XI with a splendid spell of 5 for 45.
The fall guy could well be Kemp, whose batting isn't really suited for these sluggish pitches. AB de Villiers might also come under the scanner. After a superb 92 against Australia, he has done nothing of note, and South Africa do have the hit-and-miss talent of Loots Bosman to call upon. The reluctance to juggle the batting order may also have been costly. With Gibbs unable to bat till the fall of the fifth wicket after the time he spent off the field with a calf strain, it might have made sense to promote Shaun Pollock, another accomplished player of spin.
Smith didn't think so. "Kempy's the type of guy who needs time, and he was the one we promoted today," he said. Kemp's return was 7 from 29, and his hard-handed approach to the turning ball never looked like succeeding.
All is not yet lost for South Africa. Tuesday's game against West Indies now assumes knockout proportions, and England will also be scrapping for a place in the final four. "We need to regroup and there's still an opportunity with three big games coming up," Smith said. "Our focus will be on winning all three matches. We don't really want to be relying on other people to get us through."
A few days ago, the talk was of avoiding Australia in the semi-final. Right now, even scaling such a height is far from certain. Being No. 1 is never easy, and being knocked off the perch hurts. Even more so when the knockout blow is delivered by a team that was given less of a chance than James 'Buster' Douglas against 'Iron' Mike Tyson in Tokyo 17 years ago.
Dileep Premachandran is associate editor of Cricinfo