Graeme Smith is well aware that his side needs to focus on winning the next two games to cruise into the semi-finals © AFP

New Zealand's defeat on Thursday was an exercise in damage limitation. Stephen Fleming saw the writing on the wall from the moment his seamers failed to break through Sri Lanka's top-order, and applied the brakes as effectively as he could. In doing so, he turned what - in any ordinary circumstances - could have been a high-octane but heavy thumping into a game that was spun out until the 46th over by some sly manipulation of the Powerplays. Net run-rate is the spectre at this World Cup, and it is an issue about which Fleming is acutely aware.

"You're dumb if you're not [aware]," Fleming said yesterday, as he braced himself for the possibility that New Zealand's impressive start to the Super Eights could peter out into a flaccid finish. South Africa await on Saturday, followed by the tournament trendsetters, Australia, six days later. In the event of a pair of defeats, they could well find themselves tied on points with both South Africa and England, and therefore indebted to Fleming's foresight.

To judge by Graeme Smith's take on the situation, however, South Africa - the former World No. 1 who last week succumbed to the lowly-but-upwardly-mobile Bangladeshis in Guyana - are none too fussed about the permutations that could lie ahead. You'd have thought, after their run of appalling misfortune in previous World Cups, that they would seek to have every base covered ahead of their crunch encounters with New Zealand and England. Not so. Their approach is more reminiscent of an Oudsthoorn ostrich.

"I guess in our minds there is a possibility that net run-rate could play a role," said Smith, who gave the impression of a man who was doing just that - guessing. "But foremost we know it's in our control - if we win our next two games we cruise into the semi-finals. That's pretty much our focus, and if we can take care of that, it won't come down to net run-rate for us.

"And if we win those next two games our net run-rate will be good," Smith added, ignoring the fact that Sri Lanka's victory on Thursday actually brought their figures down because it was not as comprehensive as previous wins. "Those are our focuses. If it comes down to net run-rate, we've taken control and dealt with it as well as we can."

Of course, that's not strictly true. South Africa are the only team in the top five with a negative net run-rate - even England, on +0.079, are doing better than them. Smith and his side missed a massive trick against West Indies on Tuesday when, having slapped a vast total of 356 for 4, they dallied at the death and allowed a broken team to limp to 289 for 9 in their full quota of 50 overs. Smith himself was particularly culpable, bowling five overs for 56 in the closing overs as Daren Powell spanked 48 not out - a score that was exactly double his previous career total of ODI runs.

Nevertheless, Smith's head-in-the-sand attitude to the net run-rate does at least mean his team has no peripheral distractions as they prepare for their next encounter of the tournament - although their focus is so intense there is a danger of looking straight through this match and all the way to the real make-or-break fixture; their clash with England in Barbados on Tuesday. "No matter whether we win tomorrow, we still have to beat England," said Smith. "We know what we need to do."

On the other hand, John Bracewell, New Zealand's coach, was more fixated on the game at hand. "Tomorrow is a game we want to win, must win, and need to win for a number of reasons," he said, as he sized up a loss to Sri Lanka on Thursday that brought an end to their unbeaten run of nine games. "It's recognised we had quite a helpful draw, but it's tough at the business end, which is good for us," he added. "You don't want to lose your rhythm, but you've got to be realistic. Most teams will have a defeat through this tournament so it's a wake-up call going into the tough part of the tournament."

Bracewell added that New Zealand weren't too bothered about winning or losing the toss. "We've got the flexibility within our side to cope with winning and losing the toss. With a balance between spinners, medium-pacers, cutters and genuine pace and our depth of batting, we have more flexibility to lessen the odds on the toss. And a captain who doesn't win it that often, so we're pretty used to it."

"Over 12 days they are only using three wickets here [Grenada] and they are going to get slower and slower. We were all surprised at how slow that one was on Thursday [against Sri Lanka] and how little it did for such a short period of time. It only swung, and that was only shape, for an over and a half."

"They've controlled things pretty well and they are a good, well-balanced team with a lot of options in their set-up," said Smith. "They've been put under pressure for the first time, and it's probably a good time for it to happen. They could easily bounce back tomorrow, because a tough game often shows you what level you need to perform at."

After Mark Gillespie's ineffectual return to the side against Sri Lanka, New Zealand look set to return to their second spinner, Jeetan Patel, particularly in light of South Africa's well-documented failings against slow bowlers. Smith, however, was unfazed. "We're well prepared," he said. "We're the only team to beat Sri Lanka and that was in Guyana. That defeat against Bangladesh has hopefully woken us up for the rest of the games to come.

"Most of our guys are in very good nick at the moment, so it's about going out there to perform," Smith added, as he brushed aside any lingering injury doubts surrounding his top-order trio of Herschelle Gibbs, Jacques Kallis and AB de Villiers. "We're not taking anything for granted." Well, maybe not on the field, at any rate. In the points-table calculations, however, South Africa could be cruising. Not - as Smith might hope - into the semi-finals, but for another 2003-style bruising.

New Zealand (probable) 1 Stephen Fleming (capt), 2 Peter Fulton, 3 Ross Taylor, 4 Craig McMillan, 5 Scott Styris, 6 Jacob Oram, 7 Brendon McCullum (wk), 8 Daniel Vettori, 9 James Franklin, 10 Jeetan Patel, 11 Shane Bond.

South Africa (probable) 1 Graeme Smith (capt), 2 AB de Villiers, 3 Jacques Kallis, 4 Herschelle Gibbs, 5 Ashwell Prince, 6 Loots Bosman, 7 Mark Boucher (wk), 8 Shaun Pollock, 9 Andrew Hall, 10 Andre Nel, 11 Makhaya Ntini

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo