Dubai: It was yet another case of so near yet so far for South Africa, who were desperate to end their barren run in the Cricket World Cup.
The Proteas, who came with high expectations into the semi-finals after thrashing many opponents with their ruthless batting, lost the second semi-finals to Australia by three wickets at the Eden Gardens in Kolkata on Thursday.
The very batting that brought the rivals to submission came a cropper against an incisive spell by Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood on a rain-affected wicket that pushed the South African deep into the abyss, from which they were unable to come out.
David Miller’s century gave them a fighting target after being all out for 212 in 49.4 overs. An aggressive start from Australian openers David Warner and Travis Head’s half-century put the South African bowlers under pressure. Though the spinners Keshav Maharaj and Tabraiz Shamsi brought the Proteas back into the contest and later strengthened by the young pacer Gerald Coetzee, the target was way too less to stop the Australians, who will meet hosts India in the final in Ahmedabad on Sunday. It is the fifth semi-final elimination for South Africa, after 1992, 1999, 2007 and 2015 and three of them have come against Australia, who have made it to their eighth final.
So where did the South Africans go wrong? It was the start of their batting. Unfortunately, it was a bad toss to win as it gave skipper Temba Bavuma to opt to bat first, a move that has given them five easy victories while the two losses coming while chasing. The Proteas’ batting was exposed while chasing, driving home the point that they would crack under pressure.
Little did the South Africans realise that the pressure of the knockout game is far higher than the pressure of a chase in a league game. So Bavuma’s decision to bat first backfired with the Australians cranking up the heat to expose the South African batter’s lack of resolve. As expected, the batting again cracked. The Proteas had the skills and the technique to take on any bowling, but did they have the attitude to soak up the pressure? No.
Quinton de Kock (four centuries), Rassie van der Dussen (2), Aiden Markram (1) but all failed when it mattered most. Heinrich Klaasen, who has one century to his credit, showed the stomach for a fight and David Miller rose to the occasion to post his highest score in this World Cup, a century that oozed class all over.
“Quite hard to put into words. Australia were outstanding for a large part of the game and thoroughly deserved victory. Our character came through in the dogfight. The way we started with the bat and the ball was probably the turning point. We lost it quite badly there,” skipper Bavuma told the broadcasters during the post-match press conference. “Conditions and the quality of the attack caused the downfall of the top order. They were ruthless.”
The Australians are going to be ruthless. They have come into the semi-finals on a seven-match winning streak and once they hit that form, it is impossible to stop them. They would go for the kill once they taste blood. They get the extra energy from it as Starc and Hazlewood displayed, bowling 13 overs straight, without giving the rivals any breathing space.
Only a rain interruption allowed the South Africans the relief from the Australian fire, giving themselves some time to regroup. But by then the damage was done with four key batters back in the pavilion.
“We were gaining momentum before Klaasen’s dismissal, we’ve seen how destructive he can be in the later part of the innings. David Miller showed what he can do as a player and his mentality,” added Bavuma.
On the contrary, the Australian batters’ calculated assault to minimise the impact of a small target paid huge dividends in the end. Still credit should be given to Maharaj and Shamsi, who put the Australian batters under pressure, forcing them to make mistakes. Young pacer Coetzee beautifully lured both Steve Smith and Josh Inglis into false strokes and bring South Africa back into the contest and taking it to the wire. They fought tooth and nail, but the target was too small to defend.
“Shamsi was terrific, we were competitive but we needed a lot to go right. We had chances — tough chances — but we put them down. Could have been more proactive, but you need things to go your way. Coetzee was a warrior,” Bavuma said.
De Kock, who has announced his retirement at the end of the World Cup, did his best to score 594 runs in 10 innings, will be disappointed to leave without ending South Africa’s barren run.
It was at the Eden Gardens that the South Africans showed the world about the capabilities when they returned to the international fold in 1991, but still they were not able to overturn their misfortune in the showpiece. Four dropped catches under pressure also showed the South Africans in poor light. With another loss in the knockout stage, South Africa’s fight to shed the chokers tag will continue to wait.