South Africa's methodical domination
Twenty20 cricket is reputedly a fickle beast, empowering the weak and constricting the strong to create an air of unpredictability non-existent in the game's longer formats. That might very well explain the Netherland's defeat of England, or even West Indies' triumph over India, but what of South Africa, who are trumping all-comers with a degree of consistency bordering on the inevitable?
Graeme Smith's men are clinically, methodically achieving what many thought impossible in 20-over cricket. Saturday's 20-run victory over West Indies secured South Africa a record-breaking sixth consecutive win in the format, and maintained their unblemished record in this year's World Twenty20. A win over India, the defending champions, on Tuesday would guarantee them a semi-final berth, and render them nigh-on unbackable in the betting market. So much for unpredictability.
It might just be that we are witnessing the first team - internationally or domestically - to have mastered the Twenty20 format. With a powerful and versatile batting line-up, wily spinners, disciplined seamers and all-rounders the envy of the cricketing world, South Africa have assembled a team capable of adapting to any surface, any condition, any opponent. Factor in a well-drilled fielding unit and a textbook veteran-to-rookie ration, and it becomes readily apparent how far South Africa have gone towards upset-proofing their team in a format notorious for fluctuating fortunes.
Of course, there are no guarantees in sport, and South Africa's lamentable reputation as big-tournament chokers will hound them until some form of ICC silverware sits in a Johannesburg trophy cabinet. But short of a complete and utter meltdown from a side resilient enough to claim a Test series victory in Australia earlier this year, South Africa look every bit the champions-in-waiting entering the final week of the World Twenty20. India and Sri Lanka have quite the mountain to climb.
"I'm very comfortable with where we are," Smith said. "You can't argue with the performances or the results we've turned out in this competition so far. As a team we are always trying to challenge ourselves and improve on certain areas - whether that's emotionally, handling ourselves well at key times, performing to our best skills.
"I really believe we can (win the tournament), but there's still a long way to go, a lot of cricket to be played, and a lot of other good teams in this competition who can challenge anyone on their day. We've got to make sure we're at our best."
South Africa went close to achieving that aim at The Oval on Saturday, comprehensively outplaying a West Indies side that, barely 15 hours earlier, had dethroned the highly-rated Indians. The Windies' trumps, Chris Gayle and Dwayne Bravo, were effectively muzzled by the brilliant bowling of Wayne Parnell (4-13), who has shelved his favoured outswing for a bang-it-in approach at this tournament, and strong cameos from Dale Steyn (2-30) and Rudolph van der Merwe (2-30)
Parnell, at just 19, is the latest all-rounder to roll off South Africa's world-class production line, and could well be the most exciting prospect in international cricket at present. He could do worse than emulate the focus and consistency of Jacques Kallis who, at 33, is still considered by his international peers to be the finest all-rounder in all forms of cricket.
Kallis' 45 off 31 deliveries at the top of the South African innings set the tone for the afternoon, and provided a solid platform from which Herschelle Gibbs (55 off 35) launched. At one stage, the South Africans appeared on course for a total in excess of 200, but their eventual 183 for 7 always looked a winning score.
"I just think for a lot of players, especially Jacques who has played international cricket for a very long time, this is obviously a new format," Smith said. "It's about finding his way to be successful, and I think he's found it. He's had two opportunities of IPL to learn and think about the game, he's developed a few other skills that he was hoping for. I think the added bonus for us beside his batting is that he is bowling with really good pace and bowling really well for us."
At the corresponding stage of the 2007 tournament, India, the eventual champions, had tied with Pakistan and lost to New Zealand. The current day South Africans, on the other hand, have defeated Scotland (130 runs), New Zealand (one run), England (seven wickets) and, now, West Indies (20 runs). The formguide suggests they will enter Tuesday's Super Eights match against India at Trent Bridge as favourites. The juggernaut rolls on.
"I think India hadn't really been tested in the competition until (their loss to West Indies)," Smith said. "I think they probably would have taken a lot of lessons out of yesterday in terms of the competitive nature of the tournament. It's going to be interesting from our perspective to see how they go before we play them on Tuesday."
Alex Brown is deputy editor of Cricinfo