Anytime Australia and South Africa face off in an ODI, the game invokes memories of the 1999 World Cup semi-final at Edgbaston, Birmingham, often considered as the greatest ODI ever. Speculating on how the fortunes of both teams would have changed if Lance Klusener had scored that one run is cricket’s version of Sliding Doors.
Despite a tie, Australia got to the final as they had finished above South Africa in the Super Six stage. Over the next decade, the Aussies went on to dominate World Cup cricket like few teams have dominated in any sport. They won the 2003 and 2007 World Cups with 100% win records, and came out on top once again in 2015.
It is moot whether South Africa, had they gotten into the final that year, would have gone on to dominate as Australia did. But it is certain that the team would not have the unenviable “chokers” tag hung around their necks. A Duckworth-Lewis miscalculation in 2003? Chokers. Succumbing to 27/5 in the 2007 semi-finals? Chokers. A middle-order batting collapse in the 2011 quarter-finals? Chokers. A last over loss in the 2015 semi-finals? Chokers.
Heck, their serial misfortunes even resulted in a book titled The Art of Losing: Why the Proteas choke at cricket’s World Cup. By way of pouring salt on a snail, that book was written by Luke Alfred, then media consultant to Cricket South Africa.
And it all began with that Edgbaston epic. Twenty years later, and 90 miles away from that venue, the two sides will clash at Old Trafford, Manchester on Saturday, June 6. The circumstances couldn’t have differed more. In this tournament, South Africa have never been in contention after suffering three losses from as many matches during the first week itself. Australia, on the other hand, can seal the top spot in the league stage with a win here.
CONTRASTING TOP-ORDER FORTUNES
Both teams came into the tournament knowing that their top-order batsmen would be crucial to their fortunes. While Australia has thrived in this aspect, South Africa’s top three should have done better.
The Aussie opening pair of David Warner and Aaron Finch, reunited after a year following a Sandpapter Gate suspension for the former, have been close to their zenith. In eight innings at this World Cup, they have notched up six 50+ partnerships, with three of them being century-stands. Unsurprisingly, their average of 82.1 for the opening wicket is the highest in the tournament.
Warner and Finch are among the top five scorers, with 516 and 504 runs respectively. In fact, the two have contributed 43% of the total runs scored by Australia in this World Cup.
Usman Khawaja, whose place came under scrutiny as Steve Smith had to drop to four, has shown why the Australian think-tank has placed trust in him, scoring important half-centuries against Bangladesh and New Zealand. His 88 against the Kiwis was, especially, crucial as the Finch-led team found themselves at 92/5 before Alex Carey and Khawaja came together to bat them out of jail. The five-time world champions eventually won by 86 runs.
On the other hand, South Africa’s top three didn’t stand up when it mattered. The opening partnership of Hashim Amla and Quinton de Kock averages just over 30 in the tournament. They have scored two fifties each, but for South Africa to have had some hope of reaching the final four, they needed more from this duo.
Faf du Plessis comes into this game on the back of two successive half-centuries, but those knocks were akin to a glass half-empty. When the Proteas were still alive in the competition, du Plessis managed just one fifty from four innings.
On the bright side, the South African skipper has an admirable record against Australia, averaging 51.6 with four centuries from 20 ODI innings. Interestingly, he has had the whip hand over pace ace Mitchell Starc, averaging 65.5 at a strike rate of 130 in seven innings against the Aussie spearhead.
CONTRASTING FORM OF PACE SPEARHEADS
Speaking of Starc, the left-arm pacer has been remarkable this World Cup, carrying on from where he left off in 2015. He was named the Player of the Tournament then for his 22 wickets, and it won’t be surprising if he picks up that accolade this time too.
In this World Cup, Starc has taken 24 wickets, seven better than the second best, at a jaw-dropping average of 15.5. With a strike rate of 18.6, he’s been picking up a wicket every three overs, which is astonishing.
Coming into the tournament, Kagiso Rabada was South Africa’s big hope. If Australia had Starc, South Africa had Rabada. If India had Jasprit Bumrah, South Africa had Rabada. With Dale Steyn’s shoulder injury ruling the pace great out, there was more responsibility on Rabada. But the 24-year-old failed to make a meaningful impact.
In seven innings, the right-arm pacer – who looks visibly tired and below par -- has picked eight wickets at an average of 42.6 and a strike rate of 51. The Proteas needed much more from Rabada if they were to stand a chance of making the final four; starting with captain du Plessis, the South Africans have tended to blame Rabada’s exertions in the IPL and the injury he picked up towards the back end of the league for his underwhelming performances in England.
CAREY MAKES A MARK
Alex Carey’s inclusion in the Australian squad was met with criticism from some quarters. Peter Handscomb was the in-form batsman, but Carey’s superior wicket-keeping skills saw him make the cut. That expertise behind the stumps has come in handy, with the South Australian taking the most catches by a wicket-keeper (17) in the tournament so far.
It has been his batting, though, that has stood out. He has the highest batting average (61) among all wicket-keepers in the tournament, but the stats don’t tell the whole story. Australian middle-order batsmen Glenn Maxwell, with an average of 23.8, and Marcus Stoinis, with an average of 16.3, are enduring a nightmare, and it has been Carey who has ensured the duo’s abject performances don’t affect Australia much.
This has never been as evident as it was in the last match against New Zealand. Carey came to the crease with the score reading 92/5 and batted flawlessly, making batting look easy on a track where most other batsmen struggled. His 72-ball 71 turned the game on its head.
Based both on figures and performance, you could make a strong case for Carey to come higher up the order, in the process freeing Glenn Maxwell of the responsibility of batting both big and deep – a task he has been singularly unsuccessful at.
The stakes are clear: If Australia win, they finish first and face New Zealand, who enter the semi-finals on the back of three consecutive losses. A South African win, meanwhile, will most likely send Australia to Edgbaston – the site where exactly two decades earlier, the greatest ODI ever played occurred at the same stage of the World Cup.
Australia have a couple of injury concerns, both on the back of a net session. Shaun Marsh has been ruled out of the tournament with a wrist injury caused by a Pat Cummins delivery, and has been replaced by Peter Handscomb in the squad. Maxwell is in doubt, having been hit on the forearm by a Starc delivery.
David Warner, Aaron Finch (c), Usman Khawaja, Steve Smith, Marcus Stoinis, Glenn Maxwell, Alex Carey (wk), Pat Cummins, Mitchell Starc, Jason Behrendorff, Nathan Lyon.
The only change the Proteas could make is to bring David Miller in if he’s fit, with either Aiden Markram or JP Duminy dropping back to the bench. It’s Imran Tahir’s last ODI and the leg-spinner will want to end his 50-over international career on a high.
Quinton de Kock (wk), Hashim Amla, Faf du Plessis (c), Aiden Markram, Rassie van der Dussen, JP Duminy, Andile Phehlukwayo, Dwaine Pretorius, Chris Morris, Kagiso Rabada, Imran Tahir.