South Africa v Sri Lanka, Super Eights, Guyana March 28, 2007

A step closer to burying the choker tag



A visibly relieved South African side celebrate their one-wicket win over Sri Lanka © Getty Images

Graeme Smith hadn't even started his first-class career at Gauteng when South Africa's World Cup dreams ran aground so spectacularly at Edgbaston in June 1999. Eight years on though, you could see that the experience of watching that and other defeats wrenched from the clutches of victory had affected him. The ghost of that English summer day will perhaps haunt South African dressing rooms for ever, but each win eked out as it was at the new stadium in Providence will go some way towards exorcising those demons.

Smith spoke candidly about frayed nerves in the dressing rooms - modern-day sports teams are not renowned for puffing on the cancer sticks - but he was also delighted at snatching victory on a surface where the Sri Lankan should have walked away with the two points. This could so easily have been the Premadasa in Colombo, albeit with a little extra bounce, and South Africa deserved their triumph if only for the manner in which they reined in a Sri Lankan top order that chose cavalier options when circumspection was needed.

"We dominated the game for 95 overs," said Smith, and Mahela Jayawardene didn't argue with that assessment. "We did brilliantly to restrict them to 209, and then chase the way we did. We could have been a bit more clinical, but Sri Lanka will be a tough team to beat in this competition. We beat them in their home conditions."

When asked whether the late stutter would have a debilitating effect on dressing-room confidence, Smith was certain that it would have the opposite effect. "When you win a tight game like that, it spurs you on," he said. "In the past, we've lost those games."

Jacques Kallis was one of Shane Warne's four victims at Edgbaston, but he played his part today with a mature and beautifully paced 86, the perfect foil to Smith's buccaneering ways. The savaging that he received after the 59-ball 48 against Australia was way over the top, but until Malinga caught the outer edge with a lightning-fast delivery, Kallis had done more than anyone to take his side within a stride of the finish line. "It was a superb knock under pressure," said Smith. "He took a lot of criticism after the last game, and this showed the quality of the man."

The only one to play an even bigger part than Mr Dependable was Charl Langeveldt. In the five-and-a-half years since he made his debut, the 32-year-old Langeveldt has played just 42 one-day games. In the last home season, he played twice against the Indians before being dropped, and his three wickets in four matches against Pakistan didn't exactly make him first name on the team-sheet for the Caribbean.

But with Andrè Nel going off the boil, he got his chance in St Kitts. After the game against Australia, he might have been wishing that he hadn't, clouted for 82 in 10 overs as Matthew Hayden and friends illustrated just why the ICC rankings count for nothing in the big tournaments. "There was swing for Langers today, and he bowled superbly," said Smith. "At St Kitts, it wasn't swinging ... the ball was bouncing off the stadium walls instead [laughs]."

Langeveldt's performance was all the more impressive given that the Sri Lankans had taken a leaf out of the Hayden manual against Shaun Pollock. Once he went for 32 from his first four, the pressure was on, but Langeveldt eased it with some controlled swing that was abetted by poor strokeplay.

It's impossible to overstate the importance of this win. With Australia looking increasingly likely to run away with first place, there's likely to be a traffic jam for the remaining three places. With matches against Ireland and Bangladesh to come, South Africa have moved a few yards closer to the green light

The best though came last. Sri Lanka were well poised for a late onslaught, with five wickets in hand and 26 balls remaining, when Tillakaratne Dilshan miscued one to third man. It must have been tempting then to keep Ntini on, with two overs left of his quota, but Smith plumped instead for the variations and subtle movement offered by Langeveldt and Andrew Hall. "This was a slightly bigger field than St Kitts," said Smith, contrasting the death-overs bowling here to the pasting received at Australian hands. "Langers and Hally did a superb job."

In normal circumstances, conceding a run a ball is considered more than acceptable in the late stages of a one-day innings. Langeveldt went some way beyond that by taking three wickets and not conceding a run in his final over. Russel Arnold, Farveez Maharoof and Chaminda Vaas all fell while going for glory, but Langeveldt had done his bit by varying his line and length cleverly and anticipating the charge.

It's impossible to overstate the importance of this win. With Australia looking increasingly likely to run away with first place, there's likely to be a traffic jam for the remaining three places. With matches against Ireland and Bangladesh to come, South Africa have moved a few yards closer to the green light. And if they can hold their nerve as they did today, even ghosts of failures past won't be able to stop them.

Dileep Premachandran is features editor of Cricinfo