India v South Africa, World t20 semi-final, Dhaka April 4, 2014

Trail goes cold for South Africa

Their failure at this stage was no mystery. South Africa haven't won a knockout game at a global tournament since 1998, perhaps the only puzzle was that they got so close

South Africa have stuck doggedly to the scent throughout this World T20, like a hard-bitten gumshoe detective chasing up leads, scribbling down notes and piecing together clues. But this was a case too far for them. The trail went cold as Virat Kohli waltzed off through a crowded street scene with a twinkle in his eye, while Faf du Plessis and his men scoured the area to no avail. Catch me if you can.

They nearly solved the biggest mystery of all, their knack for being knocked out. This was a courageous attempt in unfamiliar conditions against a team that has yet to be really ruffled and a batsman in his pomp. India pulled off the highest successful run chase against South Africa in T20. Du Plessis' side had prevailed by single-run margins in their three previous games but they couldn't beat out a confession this time.

Unlike the South Africa teams of caricature, this was not a well-oiled machine that conked out on the first incline. Their issues were manifold and much discussed. Hashim Amla's proficiency as a T20 opener; AB de Villiers' best batting position; the purpose of Albie Morkel. Should Aaron Phangiso have got a game on the slowest wicket the team encountered? Which left-arm seamer would you give your right arm for?

The files of evidence were piling up for du Plessis, who like any good cop had problems of his own. Unfit for South Africa's opening game, he was suspended for overseeing a slow over rate in the next two. In the semi-final, he took a slug from his hip flask and batted with a streetwise aggression, dragging the innings through the first ten overs by its lapels and setting it up for further interrogation by his partner, de Villiers.

But they needed all the pieces of the jigsaw to fit together. De Villiers had pushed England out of the competition with a Catherine wheel 69 off 28 balls in his last innings but here he managed to hit a half-tracker to a man on the boundary. He walked off cursing. The stats, du Plessis has never tired of reiterating, say de Villiers performs best when he comes in after the tenth over. He arrived at 13.6 and departed at 15.3. You can't defenestrate India in that small a window.

JP Duminy, who came in at No. 4, finished unbeaten with 45 from 40. "Could AB have batted quicker than that?" wondered du Plessis afterwards, rhetorically. Plenty were ready to offer an answer. Duminy has batted everywhere from No. 3 to No. 6 at this tournament but his consistency helped South Africa through their group and 172 at least gave them something to bowl at - even if being only four down suggested some fuel remained in the tank.

With Steyn searching for wickets, India were able to steal boundaries. That meant they could be more circumspect against South Africa's one genuine slow-bowling threat, Imran Tahir.

Morkel was due to be the next man in, though a record of 33 runs from four previous innings did not promise much. At least he didn't bowl any wides in his two unremarkable overs. Dale Steyn, whose body could not on this occasion match his unbendable will, began with an errant delivery down the leg side - the first of nine conceded by five different bowlers - as South Africa's line of questioning wavered.

"If you're looking to win a World Cup it's really important that you do the small things and the basics well and that's definitely one of the things tonight that put us on the back foot," du Plessis said. "Nine extra balls, not just the extra runs but you have to consider the amount of runs that they score from that extra ball. So you're probably looking at a 15-20-run swing just by bowling nine wides.

"If you want to win close games, beat quality opposition like India, you've got to make sure you do those one percenters really well. When the pressure is really high, you can almost afford five wides but as soon as it goes to the nine-ten mark you're under pressure from the word go."

With Steyn searching for wickets, India were able to steal boundaries: Rohit Sharma's flat six and Yuvraj Singh's punch down the ground ruined otherwise tight overs. That meant they could be more circumspect against South Africa's one genuine slow-bowling threat, Imran Tahir.

"I think Imran bowled well, his figures were good," du Plessis said. "But obviously from a tactics point of view they made sure not to give him too many wickets because when he does get wickets his tail is up. It's hard to expect Dale every time to be a match-winner for us, he's also human. He's going to have days when he's not just cleaning guys up. Dale bowled well but the batsmen were up to the task and they played him very well. You have to give credit to them. Dale and Imran are our danger men, and India's batsmen handled them very well."

The hunch that Duminy's offspin might pick a lock or two was another curiosity. Du Plessis cited his ability to turn the ball away from India's left-handers but of his three overs, all but three deliveries were faced by right-handers (for the record, one those three did nearly pin Yuvraj lbw). Duminy opened the bowling because South Africa "felt there was a bit of grip"; Rohit and Ajinka Rahane took 14 off the over and India were away.

They were as good as home following the 17th, bowled by Wayne Parnell, as three boundaries leaked off the edges of Suresh Raina's bat. Parnell had replaced Steyn, to allow the latter to bowl the 18th and 20th overs. "If Steyn bowled the 17th and Parnell the 18th, you would have asked me the same question," du Plessis grimaced. The observations will remain on file but South Africa have been taken off the investigation.

Their failure at this stage was no mystery. South Africa haven't won a knockout game at a global tournament since 1998 (when they won the ICC Knockout Trophy, ironically). Perhaps the only puzzle was that they got so close.

Alan Gardner is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Sharad on April 6, 2014, 9:29 GMT

    Although you can't argue with the point about the one percenters consider this: Faf says "Nine extra balls, not just the extra runs but you have to consider the amount of runs that they score from that extra ball." No you don't. If those balls weren't wides, they're not necessarily going to be dots ... meaning runs would probably be scored off them just like those off the extra balls that Faf is referring to. It's only the runs awarded for wides that should be taken into account.

  • Ashok on April 5, 2014, 14:25 GMT

    The only thing I would have differently for SA was to start with 2 overs from Steyn - the best seamer in the world today. That would have helped if he kept the opening batsmen restricted to 6 runs/over. SA's strength is in pace bowlers. Parnell & steyn must use the new ball to make the most of their strength. They can both keep one over each in the death overs. T20 is also a game of strategies & bringing your strength to the fore. Today Mishra was off colour & Dhoni had him bowling just 3 overs. In fact Dhoni also made some tactical errors but got away with them. He had the chance to keep Ashwin on after his super first over. But inexplicably he replaced Ashwin with Raina. But Ashwin got rid of AB de Velliers later on a long hop! Perhaps Dhoni wanted to hold off Ashwin for this match up - hence it paid off later. So Luck also played a big role in this. But judging overall, India played well as a team & kohli had nerves of steel to battle right thru' blocking off one end @ S/R of 163!

  • Dummy4 on April 5, 2014, 12:36 GMT

    What a very well written and clever article - thank you Alan Gardner for a great read!

  • Dummy4 on April 5, 2014, 11:09 GMT

    @Ahmad Uetian I half agree, and half disagree. If you look at Australia during world cups they did in fact lose games - in the '99 world cups they nearly didn't get to the second round, and then tied with South Africa. In fact South Africa didn't lose a world cup game for at 3 world cups (always NRR that chucked them out). And during the so-called Australia great era, South Africa beat them numerous times in series including in their own back-yard. And it was Australia's record against other teams that always kept them first and South Africa second in rankings. Also South Africa's record (granted in longer formats of the game) is stellar against all teams, and probably worse against the minnows. The problem lies somewhere else. If I had to guess, it's still a culture of control and caution that stems from the high-school age, and an inability to find death bowlers (even Donald was always troubled at the death) which shows where the focus has been culturally.

  • Dummy4 on April 5, 2014, 9:27 GMT

    SA can win only if they make Devilliers bat at 3

  • Steve on April 5, 2014, 8:55 GMT

    Sadly, South Africa managed a different type of choke by playing too safe! Needed scoreboard pressure with an attack not really suited to conditions and a genuine bowler light. Yes JP was solid, but how can you bat ABD at 5? If India had played Kholi at 5, they would have struggled! I basically don't understand why, in T20, batting orders aren't simply top loaded, giving time to the best players. Sure its good to have a finisher, but players as good as AB and Kholi are not playing Russian roulette with their wickets, they are class and can just as easily play finisher from 3 as 5! Waste of their one world class batsman, shame, cos 190 would have really tested India. Some things are hindsight, others hit you smack in the face!

  • Dummy4 on April 5, 2014, 8:52 GMT

    This generation has problem of respecting the mediocre & taking superb for granted.

    SA despite having no 1 & 2 ICC ranked so called class batsmen Amla, DeVilliers & no 1, 2 ,3 ICC ranked bowlers has failed to even make it to final of any ICC event shows only 1 thing that SA's so called greats r just overrated chokers who fail to perform when it matters the most: in big games.They have boosted their stats in low profile bilateral series & fail miserably in big games when opposition is serious.

    True greats rise to the big occasion, like Aussie greats made AUS win 3 consecutive WCs including a total of 6 consecutive SFs QFs & finals without losing a single game in those WCs. ..The big match player of all time: Tendulkar was highest scorer in 2 WCs,2nd highest in 3rd & was Man of the Match in 6 out of 9 Tournament finals that Ind won while he was in the team, with superior avg of 50+ in WCs & tournament finals. No other batsman has tournament final & WC record even barely close to him.

  • Dummy4 on April 5, 2014, 8:20 GMT

    Lovely piece of writing. The allegory of a police investigation. Keep it up, Alan

  • Shashank on April 5, 2014, 8:06 GMT

    Winning against South Africa in a world tournament is kinda like a child's play. As the curse of World tournament continues for them.

  • Dummy4 on April 5, 2014, 6:48 GMT

    They were as good as home following the 17th, bowled by Wayne Parnell, as three boundaries leaked off the edges of Suresh Raina's bat. Parnell had replaced Steyn

    That says it all he is if anything, consistant consistant @crap bowling & it has been shown time & time again. When came on to bowl I turned off the TV because the loss of the match then was a foregone conclusion!

    The Proteas need better openers more prolific opening batsme, no offence to Albie but he is past his prime as a bowler, not his fault that he wasn't selected or used appropiately blame the selectors whom haven't a continental clue about what is needed.

    We need a better T20 Captain too as Captain plod along doesn't have the skills to challenge his team to be better!

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