South Africa are safely through the pool stages of the World Cup and now the crunch end of the tournament arrives with the knockout games. For the Proteas, that means a quarterfinal most probably against Sri Lanka at the Sydney Cricket Ground on Wednesday.
There is a possibility, however, that South Africa might have to play Australia in the quarterfinals, in Adelaide. If Australia’s match against Scotland in Hobart today is washed out, then the hosts will finish third in Pool A because Sri Lanka will have four wins as opposed to three for Australia.
South Africa are 99.9% certain of finishing second in Pool B because if Pakistan beat Ireland in Adelaide tomorrow for their fourth win of the group stage, then they will have do it by more than 500 runs or chase down their target in less than 10 overs to give themselves a better net run-rate than the Proteas.
So, working on the assumption that it will be Sri Lanka standing in the way of South Africa, how do the Proteas go about winning a knockout game at the World Cup for the first time?
Firstly, selection will be crucial and, for me, it comes down to either Vernon Philander or Farhaan Behardien at number seven.
Whoever coach Russell Domingo includes out of those two, Rilee Rossouw has to play and should open with Hashim Amla.
AB de Villiers may have backed Quinton de Kock publically – it’s another display of saying it until you believe it by the captain following him once again saying “South Africa are the best team in the tournament” – but our patience has run out after just 53 runs in six innings by the wicketkeeper. For the good of the team in a do-or-die game, De Villiers needs to keep however reluctant he is.
Most tellingly, De Kock has been out to the same delivery in all six innings – length outside off stump – and his dismissals have all been caught: at mid-off, mid-off, cover and three-in-a-row caught behind. So Sri Lanka know exactly where to bowl to continue the left-hander’s poor run of form.
The rugga buggers, who have two World Cup crowns to boast about, will tell you that when it comes to the pinnacle of international sport, any weak link is immediately targeted. You can’t have a dodgy prop or a defensively poor flyhalf if you’re going to be world champions.
Similarly, South Africa can’t have JP Duminy as a fifth bowler, delivering 10 overs. The off-spinner has only bowled 21 overs in four matches, conceding 6.19 runs-per-over, so he needs someone to help him share the load.
Against a strong batting side like Sri Lanka, on an SCG pitch where they scored 312 against Australia, and South Africa made 408 for five against the West Indies, I would go with five frontline bowlers and play Philander and Kyle Abbott.
One of those five is bound to be targeted and have an off-day, leaving Duminy to pick up the remainder of his overs.
To pull the rug out from under Sri Lanka’s feet, the Proteas are clearly going to have to dismiss Kumar Sangakkara and Tillekeratne Dilshan cheaply. The only problem is they average 45.89 and 47.09 respectively against South Africa.
The only drawback from playing five frontline bowlers is that it leaves South Africa with only six specialist batsmen and their supporters know only too well how vulnerable they are when chasing in World Cups.
That may favour Behardien playing ahead of Abbott. I am a fan of the Titans batsman having seen his finishing ability numerous times at franchise level; but I fear Sangakkara, Dilshan, Mahela Jayawardene and Angelo Mathews hitting him and Duminy out the park and the Proteas having to chase over 300 as a result.