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05 December 2023

Pressure eases for patchy South Africa

Pakistan-born leg-spinner Imran Tahir may be used as a strike weapon by the Proteas. (AFP)


Since South Africa reached the 1992 World Cup semifinals, the country’s public have expected more from them than they have been able to deliver in the global showpiece.

The burden of expectation on Graeme Smith’s team this year is likely to be less onerous after a sequence of patchy performances by the Proteas.
The feat of the group of virtual unknowns led by Kepler Wessels in Australia and New Zealand in 1992 was remarkable because South Africa had just emerged from 21 years of apartheid-induced isolation from international cricket.
But, although South Africa quickly rose to become one of the most feared one-day outfits, they have consistently fallen short at the World Cup.
In 1996 a side led by the late Hansie Cronje and coached by the innovative Bob Woolmer established themselves as favourites in India and Pakistan, sweeping through the group stage only to be beaten in the quarter-finals by a West Indian team that had struggled to qualify.
Cronje and Woolmer were again in charge of a powerful team in England in 1999 before Australia clawed back from the brink of elimination in a Super Six match, then knocked the Proteas out on net run rate when a dramatic semifinal between the two teams ended in a tie.
South Africa’s failure to qualify for the second round at home in 2003 cost Shaun Pollock the captaincy and his successor, Smith, led a largely lacklustre campaign in the West Indies in 2007.
Although South Africa reached the semifinals for the third time it was no surprise when they were beaten by a strong Australian team.
Previous South African teams have been renowned for their fielding prowess and depth of all-rounders, with players such as Pollock, Lance Klusener and Jacques Kallis providing depth in both batting and bowling.
The only world-class all-rounder in the 2011 team is Kallis, playing in his fifth World Cup, although a case could be made for AB de Villiers, who will keep wicket as well as being a key batsman, also being described as an all-rounder.
Prior to taking over the gloves from Mark Boucher, De Villiers was the side’s best fielder, a natural successor to Jonty Rhodes and Herschelle Gibbs in the backward point or mid-wicket areas.
That role has been passed to JP Duminy, but the overall standard of South African fielding is no longer exceptional. In a recent home series, India were at least the equal of their hosts.
If South Africa are to be successful in India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, they will need solid performances from their specialists.
Their top five batsmen, likely to be Smith, Hashim Amla, Kallis, De Villiers and Duminy, have the pedigree to post the big scores that are likely to be necessary in the sub-continent.
Similarly, the specialist bowlers spearheaded by fast men Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel, together with the much-improved left-arm seamer Lonwabo Tsotsobe and experienced off-spinner Johan Botha, will need to be on top of their game.
Pakistan-born leg-spinner Imran Tahir was part of the Proteas’ squad against India but did not get a game.
Whether or not he is used as a strike weapon may depend on his performances in the warm-up games and early round robin matches in a format which allows room for experimentation.
If Tahir is selected he will lengthen an already vulnerable batting tail and the team management could opt for the safer option of left-arm spinner Robin Peterson, who is a capable batsman and good fielder.