South Africa set for knockout phase

cricket blogs for Yahoo Cricket Columns

South Africa have gone about their business in the first five group matches for the most part in a professional manner, and have also gained in confidence and the much-talked about momentum, as they look to end their numerous heartbreaks in World Cups.

In the 2011 World Cup, South Africa imploded dramatically against England to lose a low-scoring thriller by six runs, and as expected the 'chokers' tag was quickly thrust again on Graeme Smith's team. Smith was understandably miffed by this tag being put on South Africa and was at his sarcastic best in the press conference following the loss to England. To the Proteas' credit, they bounced back tremendously with victories over India and Ireland in their next two matches.

The 131-run win against Ireland thanks to a stellar knock of 99 by JP Duminy saw South Africa become the first team from Group B to qualify for the quarter-finals of the ongoing World Cup. South Africa had earlier thumped West Indies and Netherlands in their first two matches in the tournament.

There was always a question mark around South Africa's lower middle-order and it was felt the onus would be on the top four of Hashim Amla, Smith, Jacques Kallis and AB de
Villiers to score most of the runs. The lower middle-order led by Duminy, though, have given enough hints in the matches against India and Ireland to suggest they can deliver the goods. Duminy (204 runs in 5 matches at an average of 51), has scored runs in all the games except against England; and along with Faf du Plessis, Johan Botha and Robin Peterson (batting at No. 9) was instrumental in South Africa's successful run chase of 297 against India with three wickets and two balls to spare. Duminy was also at the centre of South Africa's fight back against Ireland as the late middle-order rallied to help the Proteas post a score of 272 for 7 despite being reduced to 117 for 5 in the 27th over. Duminy, who plays his cricket with minimum fuss, started slowly before exploding later in his innings, and he was ably assisted by Colin Ingram, who was playing his first match of the tournament, and by Botha. South Africa's bowlers then continued their good work in the World Cup by bundling out Ireland for 141 and confirming the Proteas' qualification for the quarter-finals.

However, the lack of runs from the blades of Smith and Kallis would be a cause of concern for South Africa, as would Amla’'s two sub-20 scores and inability to take the Proteas home against England despite getting off to a positive start. But, of greater worry would be the fact that Smith and Kallis have failed to set the World Cup ablaze so far despite being amongst the best batsmen in the modern era. While Smith has scored only 110 runs at an average of 22, Kallis has 109 runs to his name, including an important half-century against India; and South Africa will be desperately hoping the two re-discover their best batting form at the earliest. The failures of Smith and Kallis, though, have been off-set by the sublime form of AB de Villiers who has scored back-to-back centuries and a half-century in his aggregate of 318 runs from only four innings.

South Africa have always been an exceptional fielding side, and except for the odd blemish, the Proteas have upheld that reputation so far in the World Cup. But, the balance of the team has been affected to a certain extent by De Villiers' injuries, which have prevented him from donning the wicket-keeping gloves, and this has forced South Africa to play wicket-keeper batsman Morne van Wyk in the XI. Van Wyk has done a reasonable job behind the stumps for the most part, and played a cameo knock of 42 against Ireland, but he will need to step up to the plate should de Villiers continue to struggle with his injuries and only play as a batsman. 

The Proteas' only concern on the bowling front would be the injury to leg-spinner Imran Tahir, who has taken 11 wickets in the three matches he has played at an average of 8.90 and economy rate of 3.84. Tahir is expected to regain full fitness by the quarter-finals, and this would only strengthen South Africa's imposing bowling line-up led by their pace twins of Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel, who have both been in excellent form so far in the tournament. While Steyn has added to his reputation of being the world's best bowler, Morkel has toiled hard without much luck on occasions. Peterson and Botha round up the spin trio; and the likes of pacers Lonwabo Tsotsobe and Wayne Parnell haven't featured in a match as yet.

South Africa have most bases covered, and while they may not have been as ruthless as they would have liked to, the Proteas have been professional, willing to fight and consistent for the most part, and these traits should stand them in good stead in the knockout stages where one bad day can send a team crashing out of the World Cup.

The views expressed here are of the author and not the ICC.