New Zealand v South Africa, Super Eights, Grenada April 14, 2007

A floundering campaign



'Kallis's words [on the pitch conditions] sounded like the excuses of a man who knows his campaign is floundering' © AFP
Another day brings another defeat in a South African World Cup campaign fraught - like all four before it - with the sort of pitfalls and predicaments that would have been subbed out of Homer's first draft of the Odyssey. "The fates are still in our hands," insisted Jacques Kallis, as he tried to steer the stricken vessel through the post-match press conference, but one suspects he had read the runes about as well as his captain, Graeme Smith, had read the Grenada pitch.

Today's defeat - like those against Australia and Bangladesh - is not catastrophic, but it has pushed the South Africans to the very margins of qualification for the semi-finals. And for a side that was, until a week ago, ranked as the No. 1 team in the world, that is really not good enough. Today, they were not so much outplayed as outsmarted by a captain, Stephen Fleming, who manipulated his opponents as a matador might toy with a snorting bull.

South Africa is certainly a power-packed cricket team, but today it was Fleming's deft touch that had the final say, as New Zealand became the second team after Australia to book their place in the semi-finals. "The toss was vital and the first 20 overs killed us up front," protested Kallis, who likened the conditions to a "green Test wicket". His assessment, however, didn't square with Smith's earlier declaration on television that he would have batted first anyway, a tactic that was backed up by the omission of Charl Langeveldt, the swing bowler who would have reveled in the opportunity for an early bowl.

Such are the mixed messages emerging from the South African camp. They are, as Kallis rightly asserted, just three victories from a first World Cup triumph, although like Odysseus himself, they really should look into finding themselves a navigator. England really have no right to be in the reckoning for the semis after the dismal campaign they have produced but, thanks to South Africa's illiterate reading of the run-rate issue, Tuesday's showdown in Barbados has significantly raised their chances of a back-door entry.

"It was always going to be a must-win game against England, but now it becomes even more must-win," said Kallis. "It's not a major thing losing today - obviously we'd have liked to win, but the fates are still in our hands. As far as I understand, if we win we go through, so net run-rate doesn't play a role for us. I could be wrong, but I think I'm right."

Well, he's right in the same sort of way that a player in "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" is right, having used all their lifelines to get past the £100 mark. The big-money question is fast looming, but South Africa have squandered their get-out clause through dithering. The denouement against West Indies is the most glaring example of course, where Smith bowled his spinners in a bid to speed up the over-rate and gifted Daren Powell a career-best 48 not out, but their victory against Lasith Malinga and Sri Lanka was, in hindsight, another opportunity lost.

"I guess as we've got further down the competition it's very hard to move your net run-rate," said Fleming in an apparent show of sympathy, although it was notable that he - an opposition captain who had just qualified for the semi-finals - was still able to quote South Africa's new figure to the nearest decimal point. Nobody asked Kallis if he knew it off by heart himself, although to judge by his indifference to the situation, it wasn't exactly necessary.

Fleming, however, didn't need to be asked twice about the significance. "Looking after our net run-rate that was like having another win," he said, explaining once again the tactics he had used in his team's defeat against Sri Lanka. By delaying the final Powerplay until the last possible moment, Fleming strung out Sri Lanka's innings until the start of the 46 th over - having already assessed the probability of defeat. "At no stage did we look to throw the game," he added. "It was just a case of trying to balance the two. Some say that's smart, some might say something else. But that's fine."

Smart cricket was a theme of New Zealand's victory. Fleming, by his own candid admission, got things wrong against Sri Lanka, both at the toss and in selection. "It's not science and we can't get it right every time," he said, "but we learnt a lot from the last game. We missed a trick by not bowling or playing Jeets [Patel, the second spinner], but the make-up of the team was spot-on today."

If Fleming seemed underwhelmed at the achievement of qualification, it was partly a reflection of the expectations that had been in place ever since his side's flying start to the tournament, and partly a recognition that semi-finals visits are all too regular for New Zealand cricket - they've been there four times before in eight World Cup campaigns, and never yet progressed any further. "We can take a breath of fresh air," said Fleming. "We were desperate to get to the semis, and now we can move forward with real enthusiasm."

South Africa, meanwhile, have no such luxury. They fly to Barbados on Sunday, where the bouncier track is sure to suit them better than the conditions they've experienced in Grenada, but where the pressures of living up to their early-tournament billing aren't likely to be met with the same open arms. "I guess the expectation is on South Africa to win it," said Fleming, "because of their ranking and the quality of the side they have. England are coming from behind, so there's less expectation public-wise, but there's going to be massive pressure on both sides."

Kallis meanwhile was more intent on blaming the conditions at this ground - the same ground on which South Africa walloped 356 for 4 only five days ago. "It's not inconsistency in our performance, it's inconsistency in the wicket," he said. "I think it's frustrating when the conditions play such a big role in the game, but the guys did well to stick in there as well as they did. If we'd held onto one or two chances, maybe it could have been a different position. Hopefully we come across a wicket that plays the same throughout the day."

Kallis's words sounded like the excuses of a man who knows his campaign is floundering. No-one ever imagined that South Africa could top the traumas they have inflicted upon themselves in their four previous World Cups. But if they somehow allow England to nick the semi-final berth that they believed was theirs by right, there'll be no end to the navel-gazing. Kevin Pietersen awaits in an encounter to savour.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo