By R Kaushik in Mirpur
Despite weight of history, South Africa’s biggest battle in ICC World Twenty20 semifinal is likely to be the conditions on offer
First, let’s consider form. India is the only unbeaten team in the competition, having won all four games in Group 2 of the Super 10s. Each of those wins was attained with a measure of comfort. This was labelled the Group of Death; so overwhelming was India’s superiority that it had booked its place in the last four with a match to spare. Pakistan and West Indies were swept aside by seven wickets, Bangladesh by eight. And, for good measure, India had a taste of batting first too, defendeding 159 against Australia with a ruthlessness not normally associated with the side.
South Africa, its opponents at the Sher-e-Bangla Stadium on Friday (April 4), has blown hot and cold. It has been involved in four close finishes, going down by five runs to Sri Lanka before embarking on a three-match winning spree – against New Zealand and the Netherlands by two and six runs respectively when it had no business ending up on the winning side, then by three runs against England even if the game wasn’t as tight as the eventual margin would suggest.
Now, to history. India has lost in the semifinal of an ICC event – 50 and 20-over formats combined -- only thrice in all, and has been beaten at the knockout stages of these competitions five times in 10 total appearances. India has won the Champions Trophy twice (once jointly with Sri Lanka) and the 50-over World Cup twice, and was the champion at the inaugural World T20 in South Africa. A 50% percent in knockout games isn’t outstanding, but when you compare it with South Africa, it looks positively daunting.
South Africa has been in the knockout phase of ICC events 11 times. Its only knockout wins came in the first Champions Trophy – then the ICC KnockOut Trophy – in Bangladesh in 1998, when it won its first and thus far only ICC title. Since then, South Africa has suffered eight straight knockout losses – in the Champions Trophy, the World Cup and the World T20 together – an unenviable record that Faf du Plessis and his men must somehow relegate to the distant corners of their memory bank, come Friday.
So, why then are form and history both irrelevant? For the simple reason that, in a three-hour game, form doesn’t hold quite the same significance as it might in the longer games. Momentum is a crucial unquantifiable but South Africa isn't short on momentum; its form might be somewhat patchy, but given how quickly a T20 game can change and how even small passages of play can have a decisive say in the final outcome, not too much emphasis need be laid on the form guide.
History, like form, counts for very little. Just because South Africa has lost eight knockout games on the trot doesn’t necessarily mean it will lose a ninth, just as they fact that India has been undefeated in the knockouts since winning the ICC World Cup in 2011 doesn’t guarantee another success this time. India is itself eyeing a slice of history while trying to become the first team to hold the World Cup, the Champions Trophy and the World T20 titles at the same time, but it is too premature to even start thinking about that.
And so, on to the conditions, which will impact the game more than current form and past records. Having played all its four Super 10 games at the Sher-e-Bangla, India is well versed with the ground, with the pitches, with the slowness and the turn. More importantly, it has the bowling resources to make capital of help for the spinners; Amit Mishra and R Ashwin have been the stars thus far, and while Ravindra Jadeja hasn’t been on top of his game, it is unlikely that he will go an entire tournament without making an impact.
Batting-wise, too, India is well equipped to tackle the turning, fizzing ball. India and South Africa did battle in South Africa in December, Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s men coming out second best in both the One-Day International and Test series, but the pitches there, especially during the ODIs, were vastly different in character to those here. Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli have taken up the responsibility of guiding chases from the top, Dhoni has set himself up nicely for the knockouts and Yuvraj Singh returned to somewhere near his best in the last game against Australia.
There are question marks over Yuvraj’s availability after he took a knock on his ankle during a session of barefoot football on Tuesday – the twitter picture he posted on Wednesday night wasn’t very encouraging – but he went with the team to Fatullah, more than an hour’s drive away, for training on Thursday and should take his place in the XI. He was an active participant, batting for nearly 30 minutes and taking part in the fielding drills as well, encouraging developments from an Indian perspective.
Chittagong to Mirpur will be a sea change for South Africa. Down south, the pitches had some pace and bounce, and spin wasn’t necessarily the principal wicket-taking option, but even so, Imran Tahir held his own. Tahir is the leading wicket-taker in the competition thus far and got some unexpected assistance from fellow leggie Shane Warne, who turned up unannounced at South Africa's practice session on Wednesday evening; how well he stacks up against India’s batsmen, whether he gets additional spin support from Aaron Phangiso, and how quickly Dale Steyn in particular adapts to the vastly different challenges at the Sher-e-Bangla, will make for interesting viewing.
South Africa has the batting depth to counter the best India can throw at the side, but barring Hashim Amla at the top, and JP Duminy to some extent, the batsmen haven’t been consistent. Quinton de Kock and David Miller have failed to get going, and Faf du Plessis, the captain, has missed two games due to varying reasons, but in AB de Villiers, it has the most inventive T20 batsman who can play the most outrageous strokes and resurrect a lost cause within minutes.
So much for analysis. Twenty20 cricket loves throwing logic out of the window, makes over-thinking an exercise in futility, destroys the most carefully laid plans, debunks the most likely theories. Why should Friday be any different?
India: Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan, Virat Kohli, Yuvraj Singh, Suresh Raina, Mahendra Singh Dhoni (capt, wk), Ravindra Jadeja, R Ashwin, Amit Mishra, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Mohammed Shami, Mohit Sharma, Ajinkya Rahane, Stuart Binny, Varun Aaron.
South Africa: Quinton de Kock (wk), Hashim Amla, Faf du Plessis (capt), JP Duminy, AB de Villiers, David Miller, Wayne Parnell, Dale Steyn, Beuran Hendricks, Aaron Phangiso, Imran Tahir, Albie Morkel, Morne Morkel, Lonwabo Tsotsobe, Farhaan Behardien.