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Expectations Rise as South Africa Exceed Expectations

And so it really begins.

The matches we’ve all been waiting for, and in South Africa’s case the matches they’re pretty sure “no-one,” in the words of their coach Rob Walter, gave them a chance of being involved in. And it’s not out of disrespect that people held that view.

South Africa were the last team to confirm automatic qualification for the 2023 ODI World Cup, went through administrative upheaval between the last World Cup and this one, and missed out on the semi-finals of both T20 World Cups played in that time. With their recent history and the might of England (joke’s on us), the pedigree of Australia, the consistency of New Zealand, the form of India, and the unpredictability of Pakistan, South Africa were only given an outside chance of making the final four.

As their campaign progressed, however, they began to be spoken of as champion material. Never mind that finishing in the top four could well be enough of an achievement, now that they are in the semi-finals, and especially now that they are in the semi-finals against arguably their greatest rivals, Australia, all the old tropes are coming back.

Will they choke again, is the most obvious (and most overplayed) one. Can they chase again, is the more pressing one, given how they didn’t against the Dutch or India, snuck over the line against Pakistan, and made hard work of it against Afghanistan. What effect will the Springbok victory at the Rugby World Cup two weeks ago have on their cricketing counterparts? How many times will Springboks be mentioned at a cricket competition? (Answer: as many times as it can be because come on, no other team has won the rugby world cup as many times as the Springboks). And are they starting to internalise the pressure that comes with push-to-shove situations?

Walter, who rarely talks in anything other than an even-tone, offered this up in response. “The semi-final becomes what you allow it to become. I don’t ever want the guys to downplay a semi-final, because they have played bloody good cricket to get there,” he said in Ahmedabad, where South Africa played their last league game. “I would much rather tell them to enjoy the fact that we are here, enjoy the fact that we have played good cricket to be here, and enjoy the experience of being in a semi-final, against a team that we know very well, are highly competitive and probably have just started playing their best cricket.”

In just a few lines, Walter summed up the narratives that will take hold in the build-up to the big game in Kolkata on November 16. For starters South Africa, especially when batting first, have looked among the best teams at this World Cup. Five of their top six (the exception being captain Temba Bavuma, who is also nursing a hamstring injury) have contributed significant runs and four of them have scored centuries. One of them, Quinton de Kock, has scored four centuries. When batting first, their template is to start conservatively and build a platform for the power-hitters to take off from. While they have not worked out how to replicate that when batting second, they have scrapped their way to two wins, which demonstrates another route to success. There’s a lot to enjoy about all that, and some work to do. They have six days to do it.

Secondly, South Africa have a recent record over Australia that is surprisingly dominant. In the last 20 completed matches between these two sides, dating back to mid-2016, South Africa have won 16 including 5-0 and 3-0 whitewashes and league matches at the 2019 and 2023 World Cups. South Africa have beaten Australia everywhere from Providence, to Perth, to Potchefstroom, which tells them that they can do it anywhere. “It’s the same team we are playing against,” Walter said. “But it’s a different pitch. “The team hasn’t changed much. What keeps changing is the conditions.”

He’s right and he’s not. The bilateral record, as impressive as it is, includes matches where both teams were resting first-choice players. So although it’s the same team, Australia are fundamentally the same in approach no matter who plays, it’s not the same people all the time. For example, in the most recent series which South Africa won 3-2, Pat Cummins was not involved. And then it’s also not the same team in the sense that the Australia that started this competition with successive losses is not the same Australia that have reeled off seven wins in a row. Walter recognises that.

“They are playing better than they were at the start of the campaign,” he said. “There was probably some fatigue that kicked in from the (English) summer but once you get momentum in a World Cup campaign, you start to think less about fatigue and you start trusting your cricket. I think that’s where they are.”

South Africa have not enjoyed the same unbeaten run, but also did not have fixtures in the same sequence. Unlike Australia, who had two of their toughest games first, followed by relatively easier fixtures later, South Africa’s challenges were dotted through the campaign. Though they lost two matches, they ended the league stage with an overall sense of satisfaction that they are ready for what really matters.

“The exciting part is the way we’ve played. In the general sense, we weren’t even thought of [as semi-finalists] but then we played really high quality cricket to get there and when that happens, expectation rises and people think, “Oooh, maybe they have actually got a chance,” Walter said.

Now it’s up to them to see what they can make of that chance.

Source : ESPNcricinfo