AB de Villiers will still play many ODI games in his cricket career, but even if the Proteas were to go all the way and win the World Cup, the performance by his team over Sri Lanka will forever be remembered as the match when it all came together almost perfectly.
I use the word almost because the only hiccup was that Hashim Amla got out, and the eventual win was only by nine wickets and not the full deck.
The decision to retain Quinton de Kock at the top of the order proved to be a sage decision. Many pundits called for a change for the quarterfinal, myself included. He would have arrived at the famous SCG hoping to that somehow it could turn for him and it did. The bus ride back to the hotel must have been a really pleasant one. The fact that he spent some time out in the middle could not have come at a better time for South Africa. It never ceases to amaze me how a player can be so out of touch and in space of a few overs turn it around.
However, the bowling department was where it all happened. In the match build-up, speculation was rife as to who would fill the seventh spot. Incidentally, it become a non-issue as soon as De Kock was selected and Vernon Philander wasn’t deemed fit. There is no doubt that Kyle Abbott did more than enough to retain his place moving forward. The right-arm fast-medium bowler adds pace and swing to the mix, and his length was so accurate.
Right from the outset of the match, the Proteas’ mindset was to take wickets, and that was evident as Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel ran in with purpose and raw aggression. I believe it set the tone for the encounter and placed enormous pressure on the Sri Lankan batsmen.
Morkel was brilliant in using the extra bounce he generates and zoned in on Sri Lankan captain Angelo Mathews so accurately that it made a serious statement to those sitting in the change room. In such imperious form, batting against him was not for the faint-hearted.
Furthermore, I felt that the introduction of the spinners was done at the correct time which aided South Africa’s cause even more. I, for one, was quite critical of their use too early against Pakistan as seemed as if the Proteas were attempting to get through the fifth and six bowler options in that match. However, this time it looked like they were intent on taking wickets too. The fielding placing set for man of the moment, JP Duminy, was picture-perfect.
All subcontinental teams tend to play against spin well, and every time you are successful as a spinner against them, it creates loads of confidence. The fact that Duminy took a hat-trick at the World Cup, the first for a South African, will have set him up for a long time to come.
I believe he will suddenly see himself not just as a part-timer but as an attacking option. While Duminy made most of the headlines, hard-working Imran Tahir was again the bowler who made the critical breakthrough and maintained pressure with very few loose deliveries.
The fielding also deserves a mention in the same breath as the bowling. It was superb and contributed so much to keeping constant pressure on Kumar Sangakkara. So many shots were played directly to inner ring fielders and that speaks to the pre-match preparation being done well. Batsmen are creatures of habit. They tend to hit balls in the same area on a regular basis. As such, the secret is to get them to play differently when under pressure, as that’s when opportunities arise. And good field-placings are so much a part of that process.
An enormous amount of credit must also be lavished on De Villiers’ captaincy. The right bowling changes were made, the angles at which he set his fielders for each batsman were correct and the tempo of the game when fielding, allowed him time to stay settled and in control. And for once he didn’t have to bat, bowl or take a catch for the Proteas to prosper!
Looking ahead to the first semi-final, whoever it may be against, De Villiers and his charges will now know that if they get it right, beating the Proteas is going to prove a tough assignment. They may have thought it before but now they know it. The way they demolished Sri Lanka, who had also been running hot for a while, will have sent a powerful message to their opponents. South Africa are running into form and have the momentum.
I can’t help thinking that the depth in the batting department and the quality in SA’s bowling unit is more than the other teams still left in the competition. Ultimately, however, the challenge of winning the World Cup is determined by which team best deals with pressure.
Former South Africa international Pat Symcox played at the 1996 Cricket World Cup, and is a self-proclaimed cricket fanatic, struggling golfer and addicted writer.