Friday, March 25, 2011


The fault, dear Brutus, is not in the stars but in ourselves...
Those prone to thinking of themselves as victims of fate are the most
prone to believing in omens, to entrusting their lives to the vagaries
of fate. Perhaps it absolves them of personal responsibility; perhaps
it is wish fulfillment of the most defeatist sort...
Who the hell knows how a team brimming with talent manages to stuff up
when faced with the simplest of tasks? Who can explain the
As you looked at the rubble of South Africa's innings, you wondered if
the 6th ball of the first over of the chase was perhaps the catalyst
for a performance that, even by the high standards the Proteas have
set, now sets the gold standard for choking under pressure.
It wasn't even a particularly distinguished ball from Nathan McCullum,
opening the bowling for the Kiwis. It was short and fairly straight;
the best you could say for it was it was fairly close to the stumps,
and didn't get up too much. Amla shaped to cut, but the ball was too
close to him for control; he under-edged it and the ball was heading
earthwards when Brendan McCullum, actually withdrawing his right leg
at the time, found it bounce off his toe into the hands of a
disbelieving Daniel Vettori at first slip.
It was a desperately unlucky dismissal - and for a team like South
Africa, accustomed to thinking of themselves as Fortune's fools,
perhaps that was all that was required for them to mentally shrug and
think, oh hell, here we go again. Perhaps that was all it took to
bring the old demons rushing back in all their fury.
One thing for certain: the startling denouement was not foreshadowed
in the first half of the game, which for the South Africans went
perfectly according to plan.
Time was, shortly after the national anthems, the South African
captain du jour would lead the team out, turn to his two lead bowlers
and go, right, you two blokes bowl five each, then give the ball to
these other two blokes, and when you get to 20 overs, wake me up.
Against that, at the Sher e Bangla stadium in Mirpur, Graeme Smith
appeared to have erected revolving doors at either end of the pitch
through which his bowlers rotated at head-spinning rapidity.
There were as many as 11 bowling changes by the 25 over mark, and
another two before 30 overs were completed. Only Johann Botha
momentarily got stuck in the door, bowling four overs on the trot
between overs 5-11 but otherwise it was a jolly old procession.
As tactics go, it was an extension of something MS Dhoni tried the day
before against Australia when, in the second half of the innings, he
gave an over to Kohli, took him off, gave an over to Sachin after a
bit, took him off, waited a couple of overs, brought Kohli back
on...The intent was clearly to prevent the batting side from getting
into a rhythm against any one bowler. It worked a treat then, and
barring the odd exception, it worked a treat here when Smith extended
that ploy the length of an innings.
Thanks to the dizzying change of bowling personnel - aided by the fact
that South Africa has a variety of bowling styles to pick from - the
Kiwi batsmen were unable to get a grip on the game, find some sort of
firm footing from which to up the tempo. In the first 35 overs, for
instance, there were only two overs of substance: the 12th, when Jesse
Ryder unleashed two fierce shots square on the off when Peterson
dropped short and wide, and in the 32nd, when Ross Taylor slog swept
Peterson deep into the bank of vacant seats behind the midwicket
The Kiwi innings was two paced: a period of calm from the 7th over to
the 37th over featuring a 114-run partnership for the third wicket
between an almost comatose Taylor (43) and a focused, inspired Ryder
(66), sandwiched between two hyperactive periods between overs 1-6 (2
wickets, 16 runs) and again between overs 38-50 (69 runs, 5 wickets).
Those numbers tell a tale. Brendan McCullum perished thanks to a
hard-handed push at one that Peterson held back, to give the bowler
another chance to show off his catching skills off his own bowling;
Dale Steyn foxed Martin Guptill into miscuing a well disguised slower
one. Then came the consolidation - very calm, very mature, and very
one-dimensional, with both batsmen looking good enough to counter the
seven Proteas bowlers on view, but neither looking good enough to
break the game open.
The problem with the ploy of batting safe through the middle to set up
a late-inning assault is the same as the problem with making rabbit
stew: you have to catch your rabbit first. The Kiwi problems began
once they decided to change gears - they just didn't have the batting
to take on the array of Proteas spinners, plus an inspired Dale Steyn,
plus an uninspired Morne Morkel who on the day bowled uncharacteristic
tripe and picked up wickets off his most ordinary deliveries.
The bowling was tight and the fielding tighter; as a result, the overs
36-50 produced only two more overs of quantifiable substance - 13 in
the 45th (Peterson again) and 10 in the 50th (Steyn). Against that,
the same period produced 6 overs that yielded 3 runs or less.
Credit where due, the South African bowling was, give or take a
Morkel, airtight - and you have to appreciate how difficult it is to
hit line and tight length when you are bowling one, two over spells.
Backing them up was fielding - led by Faf du Plessis and JP Duminy -
as good as going to the circus. Cirque du Soleil, with balls.
Prima facie, 221, at a little over four per, was never going to
stretch a team so packed with talent as South Africa. But two factors
gave that target added heft. The first was the track - Mirpur plays
slower and lower as the game goes on, the ball doesn't come on to the
bat especially after the ball softens, and that means the pressure is
on the batsman to make the pace. More importantly, when it comes to
the knock out stage, any target the Proteas face is given added
weight, of about 50 or so, by their own mental frailty.
And so it turned out. Barring an all-too brief period when an edgy,
nervy Graeme Smith and an assured Jacques Kallis were putting on 61 at
a more than adequate 4.6, South Africa suffered a mind melt of
cataclysmic proportions; all the Kiwis really had to do was get their
bowling and fielding basics right and wait for the inevitable.
Graeme Smith's dismissal to an ungainly drive away from his body was
in keeping with the tenor of his play on the day - so in a sense, it
was the dismissal of Kallis that put the skids under the chase. The
majestic number three leaned back to a short ball from Tim Southee and
blasted it high and handsome over deep midwicket. It was headed for a
six - and perhaps with any fielder other than the tall Jacob Oram, it
would have fetched the maximum. Oram, needing to keep an eye on the
line, managed to position himself perfectly, lunged skywards at the
most opportune moment, and made an amazing catch look deceptively
The score then was 108/3 in the 25th over. From then on, the batsmen
rotated themselves through the middle faster than the bowlers had in
the first half. Here's how:
27.4: JP Duminy, looking like the proverbial deer caught in the
proverbial headlights, attempted to step back and cut a ball from
Nathan McCullum that was heading dead straight for off stump. A dicey
shot at the best of times, but considering the smallness of the
target, a piece of rank stupidity that reduced SA to 121/4.
27.6: Two balls later, Faf du Plessis worked the ball towards
mid-wicket and called his partner for a run that was never there.
Consider that the throw came wide of the stumps, that Brendan McCullum
had to reach, collect, swing back and hammer the stumps down - and
even so AB de Villiers, the fastest between wickets in international
cricket, was two yards short of his ground despite a desperate dive,
and you realize what a non-run that was. The Kiwis promptly gathered
around the survivor and got in his ear to a considerable extent. You
couldn't hear what they were saying, but it could well have been 'Son,
you just ran out the World Cup.' SA 121/4.
32.5: Jacob Oram bowled one on length, straight as a string, on line
of off. Johann Botha, with exaggerated care, parodied a defensive push
down the line of middle. Stump gone, SA 121/5.
34.2: Jacob Oram angled one across the left handed Alviro Peterson;
the batsman - by then SA was in full blown panic mode - aimed a wild
slash at it, got the edge, and got the ball into McCullum's gloves.
37.4: Nathan McCullum tosses one up outside off; Dale Steyn has an
aw-shucks, why do I even bother heave at it, got the outside edge, the
ball flared up in a loop and Oram, at point, loped in, dived forward,
and held what by his standards was a regulation chance. 146/8.
You could only watch, bemused. Cricket writer Dileep Premachandran
surveying the ruins of a simple chase, summed up the collective
feeling of the time best when he posted on Twitter:
"This cannot be happening. It simply cannot. I mean, how many times
can you be a parody of yourself?"
Faf du Plessis, with the thought of having triggered the slide
weighing on him, strove mightily. Desperately. He smashed Southee
straight. He smashed Vettori straighter. In the 43rd over, he smashed
Oram straight, and so hard that one of the safest Kiwi fielders failed
to cling on. And off the very next ball, he danced down to Oram,
picked him up, and deposited him over the desperately lunging How, and
over the ropes for six. And then:
42.5: du Plessis squared up to a fullish ball outside off from Oram
and gave it all he had; the ball flew to Southee at point. SA 172/9
43.2: Morkel rushed out to a Woodcock delivery, hit against the spin,
and picked out How in the deep. SA all out 172. New Zealand win by 49
Make sense of all that, if you can. The wicket had nothing to do with
it. The bowling - ironically, coached by Alan Donald, who has some
experience of such disasters - was tight, controlled, but not
threatening. The captaincy was an outstanding example of how to
maximise limited resources.
It baffles the mind, defeats words.
One final comment, from ace commentator Harsha Bhogle as he watched
the implosion: "Are the South Africans the Karna of cricket? Cursed to
lose their skills when they most need them

No comments:

Post a Comment