TELFORD VICE, Napier
ONLY two teams have beaten SA more than they have lost to them in one-day internationals. One is Australia, which gives context to what AB de Villiers said before his team’s match against the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in Wellington on Thursday.
Considering the low standard of opposition the UAE posed, how hard had it been in the days before the game to keep his thoughts from wandering towards the quarter-finals instead?
“Yeah, we’ve got to win our game first,” De Villiers said. “Otherwise we might actually play Australia in Adelaide.”
SA duly beat the UAE, thus avoiding a trip to Australia’s deep and gothic south for a showdown that would have dredged up the ghosts of past failures and present imperfections.
So, who are the only other team who have won more ODIs against SA than they have lost? Sri Lanka, the opponents De Villiers’ men will face in their quarter-final in Sydney on Wednesday.
Only just: 29 wins versus 28 losses. But it is a sobering truth nonetheless for a SA team who beat sides significantly more often than they lose to them; a scoreline of 330-183.
But the Sri Lankans don’t respect those conventions. From the dazzling days of Romesh Kaluwitharana, Arjuna Ranatunga, Aravinda de Silva and Muttiah Muralitharan to the modern madness of Kumar Sangakkara and Lasith Malinga, the indelible class of Mahela Jayawardene and Tillakaratne Dilshan and the egoless captaincy of Angelo Mathews, they are cricket’s ungovernables.
And that’s what teams like SA, formulaic in their approach and dogmatic in their execution, fear. To them, sides like Sri Lanka do not make sense. That the Lankans lost six of the eight completed matches they played in New Zealand before the World Cup, and have since won four of six, will keep many South Africans awake at night.
One of them was determined to keep the focus on what he hoped he could control in the frenetic days leading to the quarter-final.
“I’m especially not too worried about what the opposition do,” De Villiers said after his men beat the UAE. “We came here with a certain plan of playing a good game of cricket.
“We wanted to take a few things away from our performance today, and we did that. The way they approach the game, we can’t control that – it’s up to them.
“I felt we played pretty good cricket for most of the day, and that’s what it comes down to. I’m not too fussed about teams practising against us or trying to beat us or not trying to beat us. It’s about what we do as a cricket team.”
But it won’t be on Wednesday, when it will be about which team manages to remember who they are when it matters most.
SA are in the quarter-finals because they are a good team who play well. At least, that is true most of the time. When it isn’t, it costs them in ways more than they can measure.
The manner of SA’s losses in the group stages – whipped by India and made to look gunshy by Pakistan – has raised doubts about their ability to change the narrative of their story in tournaments from the sorry tale of what might have been.
Sri Lanka have also lost twice, to New Zealand and Australia. Three half-centuries and seven bowlers did the trick for the Kiwis. Against the Aussies in Sydney, a match that yielded 688 runs, a century in each innings, and 19 wickets, the Lankans lost because Australia played a better game of cricket, not because Mathews’ men played below themselves.
SA were guilty of that sin against Pakistan, and the disappointment lingers. Thumping the UAE has done nothing to take it away – just as hammering West Indies in the wake of the crash to India did not make South Africans believe everything would be alright.
It will be alright if SA beat Sri Lanka on Wednesday, but only until the semi-final. Then de Villiers and his men will have to prove everything alright once more. And then again in the final.
For now, they have to overcome a team who know Hashim Amla, De Villiers and Dale Steyn are among the best players in the world, who respect them but are not overawed by them. That team is not Sri Lanka. It is SA.