When South Africa were asked to chase in the big knockout, the mind obviously went to the stats: only one successful chase of 270 or more out of nine in the last four years, and four out of 14 chases of 240 or more. The other side of the statistic was that their bowlers had allowed those scores – hardly big by current standards – extremely rarely. If they were to win for the first time in a World Cup knockout match, their batsmen would have to do it the difficult way or their bowlers would have to do it. The bowlers did it, and how: in the shortest World Cup knockout match of all they bowled Sri Lanka – who once again made questionable moves – out for 133 in a show of pumped-up skill, hostility and aggression, according to cricinfo.com.
Kyle Abbott, Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel set it up with probing spells at the top, leaving Sri Lanka at 47 for 2 by the time spin was introduced in the 15th over. Imran Tahir and JP Duminy made sure the pressure wasn’t released, and were there to accept the wickets when the pressure became too much. Duminy became the first South African to take a hat-trick at the World Cup. Playing what turned out to be his last ODI innings, Kumar Sangakkara – who had scored four centuries in his last four innings – was neutralised through excellent bowling and the failure of the rest. His score at various points of the innings read 0 off 15, 2 off 27, 6 off 42, 34 off 90 and out for 45 off 96. He was the ninth man out with the score at 127, only just past the lowest score in a World Cup quarter-final: West Indies’ 112 against Pakistan in 2011.
On big days, you are looking for early signs that everything is going to be all right. Sri Lanka tried all sorts of verbal gamesmanship. When they won the toss, Angelo Mathews said, “Obviously the pressure will take it to them.” He introduced debutant offpsinner Tharindu Kaushal as a “duplicate Murali” and “mystery spinner”. They made mystery moves, too. Kusal Perera was asked to open although Lahiru Thirimanne had scored 261 runs at the top of the order this World Cup.
Perera kept slashing at everything outside off until Abbott bowled a perfect seaming delivery, which looked like it would swing in when in air, but left him a touch upon pitching. The edge was taken, and would have died well short of first slip. There are quite a few specialist wicketkeepers going around today who wouldn’t even have attempted it. Quinton de Kock, who is under pressure for having scored just 53 runs this World Cup, not only went for it, not only got his left hand to it, but also took the rebound even as he dived. South Africa’s weakest link had come good. This was possibly the sign they were looking for. De Kock would go on to double his tournament aggregate in ensuring there were no hiccups in the chase.
Now South Africa were all over Sri Lanka. Another lovely low catch by Faf du Plessis at second slip, and Tillakaratne Dilshan was walking back. Steyn nearly popped a vein while celebrating. South Africa were on for this. The first 13 overs of the match contained everything: two great catches, lovely outswing, some seam, four maidens, Sangakkara’s 5 off 34, Thirimanne’s 29 off 28.
South Africa bowled superbly at Sangakkara. There was no room given, there was some movement around, at the times he managed a cover drive he would find the wide mid-off or extra cover, and looking at the team situation, he was in no position to take a risk. The man so famous for getting under the South Africa captain’s skin reminding him of the expectations in 2003 was now getting bogged down by the expectations that come with being, clearly, the best batsman in the side.
Thirimanne at the other end was rubbing it in for Sri Lanka, who have often been guilty of getting too funky on the big day. The last time Sri Lanka lost a World Cup knockout, in the 2011 final, they made wholesale changes to a successful side. Questions will be asked of this combination too. Batting at No. 4, Thirimanne was not quite the Aravinda de Silva at 1 for 2 in the 1996 World Cup semi-final, but he was connecting everything. South Africa finally had the luxury of introducing their spinners with the pressure on the opposition, and it showed. Duminy cramped the left-hand batsmen for room, while Tahir attacked a little more. Soon, a legbreak stopped at Thirimanne, and the floodgates opened for good. Mahela Jayawardene’s last innings ended to a familiar nemesis soon after he was almost lbw to a Tahir wrong’un. Jaywardene has often struggled to read Tahir, and pulled a quicker one straight to short midwicket to fall to the legspinner for the fourth time in four ODIs.
Coming in at 81 for 4, Mathews had a big job to do. He added 33 with Sangakkara, saw off the middle burst by the quicks, but whipped an innocuous Duminy delivery straight to short midwicket. That was the last ball of the 33rd over. In the 34th, Tahir got Thisara Perera with a legbreak that didn’t turn. The next ball, the first of the 35th, was a mirror image: a Duminy offbreak to the right-handed Nuwan Kulasekara that didn’t turn enough and took the outside edge. Only Duminy and AB de Villiers knew at the moment that when he trapped Kaushal lbw next ball, he had taken a hat-trick. Sangakkara now tried to throw caution to the wind, but gave Morkel, who had bowled just as well as everybody else, his first wicket with a ramp to third man. Tahir came back to finish the innings. There was one final twist remaining, though. A freakish rain break that delayed de Kock’s response to the measly target. Unlike 23 years ago in an SCG knockout, South Africa could look at the rain fall in a relaxed manner. De Kock came back out after the break to score 78 off 57 either side of the supper break and end the game with 32 overs to spare.