Can South Africa break their World Cup jinx?
Dhaka: South Africa looks like the team to beat in the 2011 Cricket World Cup after their impressive showing in the group stage. They have played to a plan, showing aggression and intensity -- the loss to England notwithstanding.
There is a catch -- their record at the business end in the five editions of the quadrennial event is not all that inspiring. They are yet to play a final, let alone winning the Cup. They have lost the crunch matches from a winning position, through bizarre twists and turns. They would hope to change their luck this time around.
Having advanced to the quarterfinals topping Group B with a 5-1 win-loss record, South Africa are now up against New Zealand -- placed fourth in Group A, and ranked five places below the Proteas on the ODI ladder.
The winners of their match would move to Colombo to play in the semifinals against the victors of Saturday`s game between Sri Lanka and England. Head to head, South Africa are miles ahead, having won 66 percent or 30 of the 51 games against New Zealand. The statistics can make the Proteas feel confident, the past record can also be a reality check.
Traditionally, South Africans have strangled opponents in the group stages of the World Cup, only to choke in the knockout rounds. They were the losing semi-finalists in 1992, 1999 and 2007, and got eliminated in the quarter-finals in 1996. Only once, playing at home in 2003, they failed to cross the first stage.
Luck and sometimes the tremulous thin line between victory and defeat have conspired against the South Africans. In 1992, making their debut in the World Cup, the South Africans were on a song, but lost to England when they were well placed to win when heavy rain for 12 minutes turned the game upside down. South Africa needed 22 from 13 balls. But an outlandish rain rule made it first 22 from seven balls and then 21 from one after another sharp shower.
They had a rollicking start in 1996, wining all the group games, but failed to go past West Indies in the quarters. In 1999, their semi-final with Australia ended in a tie and they were eliminated because they had lost when the two met at the group stage.
Four years later, the island nation of Sri Lanka caused South Africa`s downfall in the preliminary stages. A torrential downpour brought a premature end to the match, but South Africa were again unlucky as they miscalculated the Duckworth-Lewis rule and failed to move to Super Six by a single run. Pitted against history, skipper Graeme Smith can take heart from the side`s spectacular showing in all departments -- batting, bowling and fielding.
South Africa have 11 players playing their first World Cup -- only skipper Smith, Jacques Kallis, AB de Villiers and Robin Peterson were there in the West Indies in 2007. After their loss to England on a turner in Chennai where the South African middle order crumbled, Smith asked his young teammates to "challenge the perception" that they are chokers.
The team responded splendidly, winning a close match against India in Nagpur after they were outplayed for the first 40 overs of the game in the field. The fit-again AB de Villiers -- South Africa`s principal run scorer (318 from four matches) who would be back after sitting out two games -- and opener Hashim Amla (299) have been in great form; Jean-Paul Duminy`s valiant 99 in trying circumstances against Ireland carried the team to the last eight; and Faf du Plessis chipped in when the team needed the most.
Old warhorses Jacques Kallis and Smith, who failed to fire in the first five games, also came good with the bat in the last game against Bangladesh. While Kallis got his first half-century of the tournament, Smith fell five short. In bowling, the spinners have overshadowed their fearsome pacers. Left-arm spinner Robin Peterson is now the tournament`s third highest wicket-taker with 14 scalps, while Pakistan-born leggie Imran Tahir has snared a dozen. Tearaway Dale Steyen has also picked up 10.
"We have a team where everybody can contribute. So you don`t have to rely on a few people day in and day out. That`s a nice thing," Smith said after the Ireland match. He has also sounded hopeful of breaking South Africa`s jinx in the World Cup and emerge champions. "I am very hopeful. All the teams going into the knockout phase want to win the World Cup. I think for us it`s just about not getting worried and carry on the way we have. We got to take a step at a time and with a bit of luck we shall get there (winning World Cup)," he said after defeating Bangladesh by 206 runs.
All that the South Africans need to do is to exorcise the ghost of the past and prove that they are no longer a team that promises, but fails to deliver.