Modern international teams are resourced with support staff in a way that their predecessors could only have dreamed of. Or had nightmares about, depending on the way they liked to prepare for and play their cricket. South Africa's backroom includes, one assumes, a fortune teller. Not to have one would seem counter-intuitive in a sporting world where nothing can be left to chance.
If South Africa's in-house soothsayer had informed them that today's SCG quarter-final would be a close-to-perfect replica of the 2011 quarter-final in Dhaka, the players would have stuck their fingers in their ears, sung a medley of their favourite songs as loudly as possible, and whimpered a nervous prayer to any available deity. That soothsayer, however, would have been proved right - almost eerily right.
Fortunately for South Africa, there were two quarter-finals in Dhaka four years ago. South Africa's notorious rapid-onset meltdown against New Zealand was one, but the other, between Pakistan and West Indies, took an almost identical path to today's Sydney showdown.
That day, West Indies won the toss, chose to bat, lost early wickets, (including being 16 for 2 in the sixth over) and rebuilt slightly before subsiding catastrophically in the middle order and setting a trifling target which their opponents chased with ease. As sporting imitations go, today's game was uncanny. South Africa were superb, but for the neutral, it was a similar anticlimax to West Indies' supine subsidence in 2011.
Before the tournament, Sri Lanka's lower middle order looked to be a potentially fatal flaw, the statistics suggesting it was the weakest of the major contenders. As it was, the damage on Wednesday was largely done by the failings of the top six, in particular the careless terminal strokes of Mahela Jayawardene and Angelo Mathews. However, the rapid disintegration that followed confirmed the suspicion that if Sri Lanka ever found themselves in a position where they needed significant runs from their number 7 to 11 in a crucial match, they would be effectively checking in to the next available flight home.
You might be tempted, after a walloping such as this, to ask whether there was anything Sri Lanka did right. The answer is: yes. There was plenty. Every team has keys to success, statistical goals which are all, incontrovertibly, key to achieving success. I do not know what the officially sanctioned keys to success were for this game, but Sri Lanka might consider that they succeeded in achieving the following keys so successfully that the keys opened the wrong door.
1. Keep South African pacers down to a maximum of three wickets: ACHIEVED
South Africa have lost 74% of the ODIs in which their pace attack has taken fewer than four wickets. At 4 for 2, with Abbott and Steyn probing relentlessly and Morkel still to come, Sri Lanka must have feared the worst. But they lost only one more wicket to pace, thus decisively creating the opportunity to use their finely-honed subcontinental skills to make hay against the historically less threatening South African spinners.
2. Numbers 3 and 4 to both score at least 40: ACHIEVED
The noble science of Cricketostatistics shows that teams whose numbers 3 and 4 both reach 40, win 78% of ODIs, and 74% of World Cup matches. Lahiru Thirimanne flayed some glorious off-side boundaries in his 41, and Sangakkara painstakingly accumulated his way to 45. Regardless of the clatter of wickets at the other end, victory had been 78% and/or 74% assured - even more so when their South African counterparts failed even to come close to the hallowed 40-run threshold. Faf du Plessis managed only 21, whilst Rilee Rossouw failed even to get off the mark.
3. Stop South Africa hitting sixes: ACHIEVED
South Africa hit no sixes against India, and lost. They hit six against Pakistan, and lost. They hit seven, 11, 12 and 14 sixes in their other four games, all of which they won. Sri Lanka needed to follow their Asian predecessors and keep South Africa below seven maximums. As it was, they entirely prevented South Africa from clearing the ropes. Not one single South African six. Against a batting line-up containing the likes of Rossouw, AB de Villiers and Miller, that was a notable performance.
4. Keep de Villiers down to less than 50 runs: ACHIEVED
Arguably too well.
5. The recalled Nuwan Kulasekara not to concede too many runs: ACHIEVED
The medium-pacer had been in horrible form for months until his 3 for 20 against Scotland, but the stats showed that Sri Lanka had won 75% of the matches in which Kulasekara had conceded no more than 25 runs. South Africa could only muster 13 runs off the fading swingster. That they did so in the one over he bowled was surely immaterial - another three-quarters of a win was in the bag.
6. Make South Africa think about their previous failings: ACHIEVED
South Africa had lost 100% of the World Cup knock-out games in which they had bowled first and had the opposition 16 for 2 after six overs. Admittedly, this is from a statistical sample of one. In 2011, South Africa began their quarter-final by reducing New Zealand to 16 for 2 in the first six overs. So, when Sri Lanka were 8 for 2 after 5.3 today, Thirimanne knew exactly what was needed. He laced Abbott for two sumptuous fours, then blocked the sixth ball. 16 for 2 after six. Bang on target. Book the flights to Auckland, this goose was in the oven.
Thanks be to the stats.
Also, a contender for the title of Most Modest Press Conference Response of the World Cup.
Kumar Sangakkara, a cricketing giant, a statistical phenomenon of increasingly staggering proportions, a creator and fulfiller of sporting dreams for his nation, a player whose craft, art and steel have brought delight to cricket fans of every allegiance over the past decade and a half, and now a former one-day international cricketer, asked how he would like to be remembered. His reply: "If anyone can say they've enjoyed playing against me and playing with me, I'll be more than happy."