18 March 2015
South Africa storms into semi-finals
Tahir and Duminy pave the way before de Kock leads easy 134-run chase against Sri Lanka
South Africa laid its ghosts to rest in the most comprehensive of fashions.
South Africa was bundled out of the 1992 edition, at the semi-final stage against England. Since then, despite making the knockouts in 1996, 1999, 2007 and 2011, it always found itself on the wrong side of the result.
But on Wednesday (March 18) evening, AB de Villiers and his men laid those ghosts to rest in the most comprehensive of fashions. Through a steady diet of hostile pace, followed by a masterful display of guile from Imran Tahir and the wicket-to-wicket accuracy of hat-trick man JP Duminy, South Africa sent Sri Lanka sliding to 133 all out with 12.4 overs unutilised in the first quarter-final of the 2015 ICC Cricket World Cup.
South Africa wasn't letting this one go. Quinton de Kock followed up a good afternoon behind the sticks with his first knock of substance of the competition, a handy half-century ahead of the trip to Auckland for the first semi-final on March 24. Faf du Plessis, electric in the field, helped himself to handy runs on his return from a back injury against a bowling attack that didn’t have the runs, to pull off a victory. Victory arrived for South Africa, by nine wickets, as it reached 134 for 1 in only 18 overs. As quarter-finals go, this was singularly unremarkable. Apart from the end of South Africa’s 23-year wait, of course.
Sri Lanka’s only chance lay in a clutch of early wickets. But Angelo Mathews chose not to open the bowling with Tharindu Kaushal despite having drafted him in as the last-minute replacement for Rangana Herath. Instead, he allowed Tillakaratne Dilshan and then Nuwan Kulasekara to use the new ball ahead of Kaushal, an unknown quantity whose USP was precisely that.
Sri Lanka did all the shuffling, while South Africa got the job done with clinical efficiency. In a bid to catch the opposition off guard, Sri Lanka made two moves that, had they come off, would have been hailed as master strokes. A few hours before the game, it roped in Kaushal; then, after Mathews won what ought to have been a significant toss, it sent Kusal Perera out to open the batting with Dilshan, pushing Lahiru Thirimanne down the order for the first time in the competition.
If South Africa was caught unawares, it didn’t show. Bowling with tremendous control and fielding as well as it has ever done, it came hard at Sri Lanka, determined to land the early punches and grab the initiative straightaway. With Dale Steyn returning to somewhere near his best and Kyle Abbott, replacing the injured Vernon Philander, slipping into new-ball duties with aplomb, South Africa struck telling blows inside the first 25 balls to set the tone for the rest of the afternoon.
Those were blows Sri Lanka never recovered from. Briefly, when Thirimanne counter-attacked with panache, it seemed up for the fight, but once de Villiers turned to Tahir and Duminy, the legspinner and the offspinner weaved their magic against a side that traditionally prides itself on its brilliance against the slow stuff.
This was the kind of surface that seemed to suit Sri Lanka. There was early pace and not inconsiderable bounce, but gradually, the ball started to sit in the pitch and hold up. Shot making wasn’t easy, but Sri Lanka found it difficult to rotate the strike. Even Kumar Sangakkara, with four centuries in a row, found shot-making tough. He took 16 deliveries to get off the mark, reached 5 off 28, hit his first boundary only off his 43rd delivery, and while he was never unduly troubled, his approach was fraught with danger if he didn’t bat through the innings.
South Africa couldn’t have chosen a better occasion to turn in its most complete bowling display to date. The general belief was that the toss could turn out to be crucial and a total of 275 would have taken some getting. But South Africa didn’t allow itself to be draped in negativity. Its new-ball bowling was immaculate – pacy and accurate, both Steyn and the taller pair of Abbott and Morne Morkel getting good bounce, bowling in the channel that allowed the batsmen no liberty to free their arms and making excellent use of movement in the air and off the surface.
Kusal was the first to go, expertly caught on the second attempt by de Kock diving to his left, and Dilshan’s luck ran out a few minutes later as Steyn got bounce and late movement to catch his splice. Du Plessis took off to his right at second slip, catching the ball inches off the ground. It was 4 for 2 in 4.1, one of those runs coming from a legside wide.
Thirimanne was slightly chancy to start with, but increasingly rediscovered the fluency that had brought him 261 runs as an opener in this tournament. He called the shots in the third-wicket stand of 65, and Sri Lanka seemed to have climbed out of the hole and set itself up for a grandstand finish when de Villiers brought on Duminy and Tahir to operate in tandem.
De Villiers, who led with the onus always on taking wickets, set fields astutely and applied relentless pressure. Thirimanne then reached out to push Tahir down the track, the legbreak stopped on him, and the resultant lob landed straight in the bowler’s hands to send him on a sprint of delirium. It was just reward for some wonderful bowling against batsmen accustomed to playing the turning ball with felicity.
Things were to get worse for Sri Lanka four overs later when Mahela Jayawardena, in what turned out to be his last international innings, succumbed to mounting pressure and a static scoreboard, caught at short midwicket off Tahir. Sangakkara and Mathews, the last recognised pair, navigated the middle overs carefully, but the runs weren’t coming at any pace.
Something had to give. It did, when Mathews charged Duminy in frustration, and smashed him straight to midwicket off the last delivery of the bowler’s seventh over. It was to trigger a rash of wickets; with the first two balls of his next over, Duminy had Nuwan Kulasekara caught behind and trapped Kaushal in front to become the eighth bowler to take a World Cup hat-trick.
Sri Lanka lost its last six wickets for 19 runs in 27 deliveries, Sangakkara ninth man out after a 96-ball 43 in his final ODI appearance. His innings summed up Sri Lanka’s batting effort. It also put in perspective the quality of South Africa's bowling, which, to a man, was little short of exceptional.
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Two of the greatest depart for the final time together
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