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

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