South Africa and Australia are similar sides but Australia looks a bit stronger at the moment
If Friday’s matches at the R Premadasa Stadium witnessed a clash of styles, then Sunday’s showdown will pit teams that boast similarstrengths against each other.
The first game of the double header in Group 2 of the ICC World Twenty20 2012 will bring together Australia and South Africa, sides that play almost identical brands of cricket with a distinct emphasis on pace bowling.
Any advantage South Africa and Australia might have had in their previous Super Eights encounters, against Pakistan and India respectively, will be neutralised when they go head-to-head, largely because both have been brought up on lively pitches and against a steady diet of high quality pace bowling.
The short ball that South Africa employed against Pakistan with modest success, and Australia against India with far greater returns, won’t quite be as effective against each other, even though both sides possess the class and the wherewithal to trouble the best in the business.
Australia is undeniably in a happier state of mind, having begun its Super Eights campaign with a commanding all-round performance against India. Having made all the early running, Australia has gradually brought consistency into its Twenty20 cricket, and for all the affront it felt at having been ranked below Ireland in the ICC T20 rankings not so long back, Australia isn’t unaware that it has often been its worst enemy.
Under George Bailey, the team is making a conscious effort to not lose focus, and to approach each game like it is the most important match ever. That approach has paid off, though it might also have something to do with the fact that Shane Watson, its understated but certainly not under-achieving all-rounder, has been in the form of his life.
Watson has enjoyed himself in Sri Lanka with both ball and bat. He has taken the most wickets in the tournament to date, eight, hit the most sixes, 13, and been the Man of the Match in each one of Australia’s three matches, clearly the force that is driving Australia’s campaign for its first ICC World Twenty20 crown.
“He has been outstanding, that’s a no-brainer,” said Bailey. “Whether he can continue to play like that, I don’t know, we are forecasting.But you would think the way he plays and I know the way Watto prepares, there is no reason why he couldn’t. I know he has set himself to be man of the tournament, the person who leads Australia as far as he can in this tournament. When you see the way he plays inthis format of the game, he is almost the complete cricketer.”
Australia isn’t just about Watson, but there is no disputing the influence he wields with both bat and ball. His destroyer-in-arms at the top of the batting tree has been David Warner, who has smashed every bowler out of sight, while with the ball, Watson has beensuperbly complemented by Mitchell Starc, the left-arm paceman and Pat Cummins, who has shaken up teams with his extra pace and the ability to extract bounce even from the most docile surfaces.
If there is one area of relative under-cooking, it’s the middle-order batting, but that’s because the likes of Mike Hussey, Cameron White, Bailey, Glenn Maxwell and Daniel Christian haven’t so much as had a hit. So deep into the innings and with such authority have Watson and Warner batted that the rest have enjoyed the spectacle from the dugout. If South Africa can somehow get the middle-order in early, and that’s a big if, it will certainly fancy its chances.
For South Africa, this is the first of two must-win games, courtesy Umar Gul’s pyrotechnics that transformed a certain Pakistan defeat to a famous victory. South Africa was well below par, particularly with the bat, and yet managed to run Pakistan close; indeed, with Pakistan at 78 for 7 chasing 134, it should have closed out the game, but Gul in particular and Umar Akmal played with such abandon that it completely lost the plot in the last six overs.
South Africa must revisit its plans and think long and hard about whether AB de Villiers, its captain and its best Twenty20 batsman,won’t serve the team’s needs better if he bats higher than at No. 6. It wasn’t until de Villiers joined JP Duminy with less than eight overs left that the South African innings found some direction and impetus. At No. 6, de Villiers is selling himself and his team short. Twenty20 cricket demands that the best batsman gets the chance to play as many deliveries as possible. By defying that tenet, South Africa isn’t making its task any easier.