It’s showtime for Smith’s stars

2009-09-22 00:00

SOUTH Africa go into this afternoon’s opening fixture of the Champions Trophy as overwhelming favourites, despite not seeing match action since the Twenty20 World Championships in June.

The mission for Graeme Smith’s men is pretty straightforward, but the road to ultimate glory is not exactly plain sailing. If South Africa can lift the trophy after a fortnight of frivolity, all suggestions of a choker tag shall be banished forever.

They have the talent, the home ground advantage and the match winners to win the cup, but limited overs cricket can be hard to determine.

At the Twenty20 Worlds, Smith’s men sailed through the group stages, only to stumble when they met a resurgent Pakistan outfit in the semi-finals.

What hurt Smith the most was that one loss was able to wash away three or four games of very thorough cricket. In many ways, the Proteas have had a nasty habit of peaking too soon, and the goal this time will be to hit the right notes when the stakes are highest.

Smith said yesterday that the additional burden of playing at home and being cast as favourites would not harm the Proteas.

“The crucial thing is that we play our game and not be led into the way other teams play the game.”

Sri Lanka is a dangerous outfit, blessed with a host of possible match-winners and the Proteas will be out to set a standard early in the competition.

“We are excited and we have prepared well and we are the best prepared we can be for this tournament,” Smith added.

Despite not playing any competitive cricket, Smith’s men should have enough talent to overwhelm a Sri Lankan side that leans heavily on spin.

“Murali [Muttiah Muralitharan] has troubled a lot of players in the past. What is going to be interesting is how he fares on South African surfaces. At the end of the day, our record speaks for itself of how we have played spin over the last few years,” Smith said.

Indeed, South Africa have a middle order that is full of runs, and the early indicators suggest that AB de Villiers and JP Duminy are in fine nick. Mark Boucher has also never let anyone down with his late charges and the onus will be on the top-order to lay a platform for the middle order to charge.

In Albie Morkel, the Proteas have a trump card that can clear any boundary at will, provided he has time to settle in before going beserk.

The Proteas are also blessed with bowling options, which they will need to contain the combined firepower and class provided by Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakarra. In Johan Botha and Roelof van der Merwe, Smith has two world class spinners, who will play a crucial role in the dreaded middle overs.

“Over the last 18 months, Johan has become one of the best bowlers in limited overs cricket,” Smith said of his kingpin.

Not only does Botha tie an end up, he is a constant threat — even with his doosra being banned from the field of play.

The one blemish for Smith’s side is the loss of Herschelle Gibbs, who will be replaced by Dolphins star Hashim Amla.

Amla is a more than handy replacement, with a healthy strike rate and a range of unorthodox strokes to befuddle opponents.

The time has come for Smith’s top-ranked side to demonstrate their ability to handle both pressure and expectation.

By later this evening, we should also know if they have shaken off the cobwebs of a rare off-season.

Play starts at 2.30 pm — coverage on SuperSport 2 and SABC 3

TEAMS:

South Africa: (probable) Graeme Smith (capt), Hashim Amla, Jacques Kallis, AB de Villiers, JP Duminy, Mark Boucher (wk), Albie Morkel, Roelof van der Merwe/Wayne Parnell, Johan Botha, Makhaya Ntini, Dale Steyn.

Sri Lanka: (probable) Sanath Jayasuriya, Tillakaratne Dilshan, Kumar Sangakkara (capt/wk), Mahela Jayawardene, Thilina Kandamby, Chamara Kapugedera, Angelo Mathews, Thilan Thushara, Nuwan Kulasekara, Muttiah Muralitharan, Lasith Malinga.

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