Match Analysis

'It was an execution thing' for South Africa, and it went all awry

It's unfair to criticise South Africa after one defeat, but their team balance does look like it needs fixing

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
Temba Bavuma squats after missing a ball from Glenn Maxwell, Australia vs South Africa, T20 World Cup 2021, Group 1, Abu Dhabi, October 23, 2021

Temba Bavuma was beaten fair and square up top by Glenn Maxwell  •  ICC via Getty

It had to happen. A World Cup. Australia versus South Africa. A thriller. And a run-out.
This one is less significant than the most (in)famous one of them all, in 1999, but possibly more comical. Keshav Maharaj bunted Pat Cummins to point and the fielder shied at the non-striker's stumps and missed. On 83 for 6 in the 15th over, South Africa were desperate for every run, so Maharaj tried to take advantage with a single. Aiden Markram, the last recognised batter left in the line-up, had his back turned and didn't see Maharaj advance. When he did, he sent Maharaj back but from two-thirds of the way down the track, it was always going to be difficult. Then Maharaj slipped as a wide throw came into Matthew Wade. The time it took Maharaj to get up and begin making his way back allowed Wade to gather the ball and take aim at the stumps. Maharaj was run-out by some distance.
South Africa were 83 for 7, with 34 balls left in an innings in which almost everything had gone wrong.
Temba Bavuma enjoyed his speediest start to an innings since recovering from a broken thumb but it was shortlived. Rassie van der Dussen's century in the warm-ups has been eclipsed by his Test-match style dismissal in this match. But it was Quinton de Kock's slow-motion playing onto his stumps from which South Africa could not recover, and that's before we get into David Miller's lack of form and Heinrich Klaasen being a virtual passenger.
"The guys have prepared quite well in terms of trying to deal with mental pressures. I can't remember a time when our batting has collapsed like that. It's not every day when your top seven, bar Aiden Markram, all fail. It was an execution thing"
Temba Bavuma
South Africa's top-heavy-but-still-a-batter-short strategy is coming home to roost. It's a limitation that they overcame against opposition like Ireland and Sri Lanka but it was always going to be difficult against an attack like Australia's, especially after falling to 29 for 3 in the powerplay. That's South Africa's worst powerplay in 34 matches, dating back to February 2019, and played perfectly into Australia's hands.
Australia gambled by playing three quicks and leaving out Ashton Agar, who has played in 12 of their 15 T20Is this year, and who Marcus Stoinis believed would have a part to play at some point in the tournament, but it paid off. It allowed them to use Glenn Maxwell, perhaps more than planned. He opened the bowling and delivered a full quota of four overs for the first time since 2018. The idea was that Maxwell would threaten the left-handed de Kock but he ended up getting Bavuma, who missed a delivery that turned a touch.
And then there was Josh Hazlewood. Recently reinserted into the Australian team, he was the headliner, with his longer-format lengths and wicket-maiden in his second over. He would have finished with even better figures than his 2 for 19 if not for South Africa's 17th over aggression, which cost him 12 runs. In the end, Australia only needed to use the five frontline bowlers with Mitchell Marsh and Stoinis surplus to requirements. South Africa did the same, but their team balance looked off.
It's harsh to criticise the South African attack, after they kept their side in a game they had no right to remain in and poked holes in an Australian line-up that will have the same questions they came into this tournament with, but there are some areas of concern, most notably in their make-up. They opted for two frontline quicks, two specialist spinners and one of their seam-bowling allrounders, which sounds like a reasonable combination but only works if all five are firing and the fielding effort is flawless. For the most part, they were.
Kagiso Rabada found some better form than he has had recently, Maharaj and Tabraiz Shamsi conceded only 45 runs in their eight overs (exactly the same as Maxwell and Adam Zampa), Anrich Nortje applied constant pressure and Markram and Klaasen pulled off two sensational catches. Dwaine Pretorius did his bit and only gave away 16 runs in three overs when he was tasked with defending eight off the last over. In hindsight, Rabada should probably not have bowled the 17th over, which cost 11 runs and left Australia needing 25 off the last three overs. A few big hits from Stoinis put paid to any South African hopes for heroics and registered another heartbreak-by-Australian-hands for them. Maybe it was always going to happen.
Bavuma spoke on the eve of the match of the anxiety running through the South African camp, seven of whom are at their first World Cup. He also reminded his team, and everyone else, that there was no bigger motivation for South Africa than taking on their second-oldest and fiercest rivals, Australia. In the end, he didn't blame the nerves but the execution.
"The guys have prepared quite well in terms of trying to deal with mental pressures," he said after the game. "I can't remember a time when our batting has collapsed like that. It's not every day when your top seven, bar Aiden Markram, all fail. It was an execution thing."
But he conceded they fell well short of expectations: "118 was definitely not a par score. Anything around 150-160 would have been competitive." On the evidence of Australia's batting, even 135 may have been enough on the day, in those conditions, but all the what-iffing in the world is not going to change that South Africa have already given themselves a mountain to climb over the next two weeks, and Australia have already issued a small warning to the rest that they are here to play. As always.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent