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Feature

'We like making them tight' - Stubbs relishes experience from South Africa's close wins

"You gain experience from being in those situations, knowing that the game is never done"

Matt Roller
Matt Roller
23-Jun-2024
Tristan Stubbs takes the venom out of a yorker, USA vs South Africa, T20 World Cup 2024, North Sound, June 19, 2024

Tristan Stubbs takes the venom out of a yorker  •  Getty Images

A perfect record of six wins from six might suggest that the T20 World Cup has been as easy as a stroll along a Caribbean beach for South Africa. But the nature of those wins tells a very different story: two nervy run chases on dicey pitches in New York, and a combined margin of victory of 30 runs across their last four matches while batting first.
"We like making them tight," Tristan Stubbs told ESPNcricinfo, sipping on a cold beer in the South African dugout after they snuck past England at the Daren Sammy Cricket Ground in St Lucia. "Winning's a habit and we've been on a roll, winning the tight games. You can never go wrong with that.
"It's nice to keep the scoreboard going in terms of wins. Personally, on the field, I think 'surely we can't do this again?' and then we keep winning the tight ones. It's always better to win the tight ones [than one-sided games]... You gain experience from being in those situations, knowing that the game is never done."
It has belied the national stereotype of South African cricket of struggling under pressure, and should set them up well for a potential semi-final or final. Their bowlers have had more match practice bowling at the death than any other team at this World Cup: against England, they conceded 17 runs in the final three overs with a solitary boundary.
It may just be the type of random pattern that T20 can throw up but Stubbs believes there is more to it than that. For the past two years, South Africa's squad have regularly played high-stakes cricket in their franchise league, the SA20, and Stubbs is one of four - along with Aiden Markram, Marco Jansen and Ottniel Baartman - to win back-to-back titles with Sunrisers Eastern Cape.
"It helps to play in all the different comps," Stubbs said. "You play in a lot more knockout games. Nothing compares to a World Cup, but there is the pressure of knockout cricket. We never win comfortably [at SEC]: we always seem to have four runs here, last over there. I wouldn't say it's nice to get used to it, but it's nice to win in those close games."
Stubbs also had to cope with the burden of a substantial price tag in the SA20, after his R9.2 million sale in the tournament's initial auction. "The first year I struggled with it, but this year I didn't let it worry me too much," he said. "I went with the approach of, I'm just going to enjoy it and not let it weigh me down. That's when I play my best."
It has been a relatively quiet World Cup for Stubbs though his tournament aggregate - 105 runs in six innings, with a strike rate of 91.30 - reveals little. He started with three grinds from No. 4 in New York - 13 off 28, 33 off 37 and 0 off 5 - and has not been dismissed since South Africa arrived in the Caribbean, with a vital cameo in the one-run win over Nepal.
"We've played in New York so as a batter, anything else is better than that," he said. "These wickets in the Caribbean are similar to some of the coastal wickets back home: you're probably looking at flat fours rather than sixes because you have to really hit it, and the wind's playing a big factor so you can't take on the windy side. It's been a big factor."
It has required a huge adjustment from the IPL, where he hit more sixes (26) than fours (24) and breezed along at a strike rate of 190.90, finishing the tournament as Delhi Capitals' second-highest scorer. "It's been completely different," Stubbs said. "It's been challenging, even in the Caribbean: the wickets are good up front and then it gets harder through the innings."
Stubbs has relished this World Cup, not least the opportunity to visit new places. "In New York we were a bit out of town but I went into the city twice and it's amazing: I went to the 9/11 memorial and as a team we went to Times Square. The Caribbean has been awesome. It's really easy to switch off. The beaches have been so lekker... it's been beaches, and a couple of rum punches."
But they are also determined to make the most of their chance to win this tournament, with Stubbs a rare exception in a squad filled with players in their early 30s who are at the peaks of their careers. Their next task is to beat West Indies in Antigua on Sunday - though they may not need to, and will know the scenarios by time they play at 8.30pm.
"I'm sure it'll be sold out: watching their games on TV has been awesome, and I think it'll also be a benefit to us to be playing last. The first goal will be to win, then we'll go from there. We've not got ahead of ourselves and we've played each game as it comes… but I think a lot of the guys see it as a great opportunity to try and win the trophy."

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98