Ab De Villiers’ team are deserving of their status as one of the pre-tournament favourites. They’re a squad littered with world-class stars – powerful and inventive batsmen, fast and attacking bowlers and mostly lightning-quick operators in the field in keeping with this country’s great history in that part of the game.
They’ve spent the last four years building their squad, sacrificing a series against New Zealand in 2011, allowing the captain to give up wicketkeeping duties, while also resting and rehabilitating players to have them fresh for this big event.
Last year they went to Sri Lanka and won a one-day series there – albeit a short three-match series – and in doing so achieved something no South African side had managed in 20 years. They beat Australia twice in a tri-series tournament in Zimbabwe, successfully chasing targets both times – the first a mammoth 328, and then again in the final where the requirement was a more modest 218.
Yet despite initial optimism that they’d offset Jacques Kallis’ retirement by employing a different kind of all-rounder, there are still concerns over the balance of the starting XI. Ideally they want to play seven frontline batsmen, something the great Kallis allowed them to do. They really hoped Ryan McLaren would fire better with the bat, but his own fitness shortcomings and problems against the short ball in Australasia late last year saw the selectors make their most ruthless call of any decision regarding the World Cup squad.
The selection of Farhaan Behardien is a massive gamble and South Africa is relying on him not just to help JP Duminy to complete a 10-over ration, but also to come in at No 7 and finish the innings – if they bat first, to boost the total to something beyond the opposition, or to win games if they bat second.
South Africa’s game plan with the bat is to be steady up front so don’t expect to see them thrashing it around in the first 10 overs, regardless of the fact that just two fielders are allowed on the boundary. They want to get to the 35th over with wickets intact and then allow the dynamism of De Villiers, David Miller and JP Duminy to carry them to some big totals.
Hashim Amla and Faf du Plessis are key here with that duo providing the stability and allowing the rest to be a little more adventurous. Miller importantly showed in Port Elizabeth against the West Indies recently that when Plan A goes awry he can also knuckle down and play a long innings.
The worry is Behardien, who is yet to offer anything with the bat, aside from that half-century in a dead rubber in Sydney last November.
The bowling is reliant on striking with the new ball and in that regard there aren’t many attacks that can match South Africa. If they keep the opposition in check by striking early, then Imran Tahir, described by the squad’s consultant Gary Kirsten as South Africa’s key bowler, could cause havoc in the middle overs.
There’ll be no need to worry too much about the “death” overs, though if they do get there, South Africa will be relying on a strategy based around being unpredictable.
He can keep, he can bat, he can bowl, field and sing – even in Hindi. He is a breathtaking talent, who has done well to adjust to the demands of captaincy.
De Villiers isn’t a natural leader in the mould of his predecessor Graeme Smith.
He leads as he plays – by feel and instinct. That may be disconcerting for some who became used to the firm structure of the (Kepler) Wessels and (Hansie) Cronje years.
Smith started to loosen the shackles a bit at the last tournament, opening the bowling with spin, using Tahir in the power-play overs, and De Villiers has looked to build on this.
His use of Duminy is especially interesting, with De Villiers likely to throw him on to bowl inside the first 10 overs if the mood takes him.
The demands of the new fielding rules have seen De Villiers try to stay a step ahead, so don’t be surprised to see a leg-slip in the 37th over, or a short-leg even.
The worry is over-thinking and of course what he does when one of his front-line bowlers cops a beating. Presumably he’ll just bring himself on then.
De Villiers and Hashim Amla are like a South African version of Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar, or Kumar Sangakarra and Mahela Jayawardene, in that if they bat together for a long time, South Africa will win the game.
Around them has grown a formidable unit. Quinton de Kock is a free spirit at the top of the order, though he’s quickly learned to tighten his game. Du Plessis is the rock, there to provide the stability while the rest show off their flair, though if the mood takes him or the situation demands it, he can roll with the best of them.
Miller and Duminy are a potentially dynamic duo, there to put the icing and cherry on the De Villiers-and-Amla cake – if everything goes according to plan.
The bowling has plenty of variety, led by the irrepressible Dale Steyn.
South Africa will attack with the ball, their belief being that the best way to stop runs being scored is by taking wickets.
And they have the bowlers to do so – Vernon Philander if there’s a bit of nip around, Morne Morkel if there’s even a little bounce in the surface, and Tahir who has at least seven different kinds of deliveries.
And then there’s the fielding. South Africa is rather good this year, having heeded the call of the skipper to show more flair and aggression and get the opposing batsmen to think twice before taking a risky run. Miller, Duminy, Du Plessis and De Villiers are the core of a magnificent group while Behardien is an excellent catcher too.
That No 7 spot. Strange to think that a country that produced all-rounders of the ilk of McMillan, Klusener and Pollock, have battled to settle on a solid No 7 who can be relied upon for 10 overs and to score 40 runs at a strike-rate above 120.
McLaren was supposed to be that player, but the selectors, and even his captain, seemed to lose faith in him very quickly in Australia last year.
Behardien just doesn’t inspire confidence, certainly not in the way that he does when playing for the Titans.
And Wayne Parnell? Given his potential, he really should be in the same bracket as a McMillan, Pollock or Klusener, but hasn’t shown the necessary consistency.
Philander is another. At Test level he looks the part as an all-rounder, but in the limited overs format, he just can’t seem to get his batting into gear quickly enough and his bowling, if there’s nothing on offer off the pitch, is one-dimensional.
Then there’s the pressure question.
Most teams would find it difficult to deal with pressure, but South Africa are specialists in panicking when the squeeze is put on them.
The legacy of past failures sits with them – they won’t admit it, but they know it and most importantly their opponents know that too, and so come that quarter-final in a little more than a month’s time, expect to see South Africa reminded of their habit for mentally disintegrating
Key players (Outside of Steyn, De Villiers and Amla)
His absence in Australia last year made everyone’s heart grow fonder. The all-rounder that was the missing piece then, is just about fit enough now. Can he stay that way for six weeks? South Africa will desperately hope so; a cool head in the middle-order able to adapt beautifully to whatever situation. With the ball, he has the remarkable talent of picking up wickets with rubbish deliveries.
Sliders, googlies, leggies and flippers, the Pakistan-born wrist spinner brings a lot of tricks to the table, and De Villiers loves utilising them. Tahir is a major part of the South African attack because he won’t give batsmen a break during the middle overs. If he’s not going to get you out with a magic ball, he’ll entice an error – a bit like Duminy.
There needs to be more from him on both sides of the ball. With that new ball he has to pick up wickets, because he’s not going to be bowling at the “death”, and, in fact, once the ball loses its shine, he loses a lot of his potency. Also has to provide more with the bat. If South Africa demands of him to be an all-rounder in Tests, then why not in ODIs?
How important was that innings against the West Indies in Port Elizabeth?
Did Miller turn the corner there? If he has, then this World Cup could be the stage on which he launches himself to superstar-dom.
We know he can hit the ball miles, but what we saw in PE is that when the team is in trouble, he can hang around and be dogged.
This is a high-pressure tournament and he bats in a high-pressure spot, so if he can keep his cool as well on the field as he does off it, he’ll be a match-winner.
Not part of the “starting XI” with Behardien surprisingly jumping ahead of him as South Africa seek that seventh batsman who can do a bit of bowling.
Parnell, is capable of doing both, but the problem is consistency.
If it’s his day, he can blow teams away – witness the impact he made in the triangular final in Harare last year when he picked up the wickets of Steve Smith and Mitchell Marsh which took the momentum away from Australia.
He’s a bit of maverick cricketer, but has to rise to the occasion for SA to do well this year.
How the Proteas were knocked out previously:
1992: Semi-final. 22 off 1 ball (no more need be said)
1996: Quarter-final. Brian Lara’s furious century on the back of – in hindsight – the poor decision to drop Allan Donald from the starting team.
1999: Semi-final. The choking seed is planted in one of the greatest cricket matches ever played. A calamitous run out is the stuff of cricketing nightmares.
2003: First-round group stage. No one – not the captain, nor the coach, the manager or any other player – read the Duckworth/Lewis sheet with revised totals properly. There’s a big difference between a tie and a win.
2007: Semi-final. Again to Australia, though this time they displayed too much bravado and zero control to lose very badly in St Lucia.
2011: Quarter-final. Those crafty New Zealanders knew exactly which buttons to push and South Africa melted in embarrassing fashion.
Stuart Hess and Zaahier Adams will cover the 2015 Cricket World Cup for Independent Media and here’s there predictions on how the Proteas will fare:
Stuart Hess: Semi-final. They’ll be beaten by a better team, most likely Australia
Zaahier Adams: Will win the first knockout match. Nothing more. – Cape Argus