New Zealand vs South Africa | Tuesday 24 March | Auckland | 03:00
Fanatic followers of the Cricket World Cup and its previous editions come across a fixture that will surely occupy a special room in the memory palace. New Zealand and South Africa have come to blows in each of the last six incarnations of the tournament and a chance to relive the absolute dogfight that occurred in Mirpur four years ago will pervade the thoughts of both squads. It was messy both in terms of cricket played and verbal assaults. It is also a clash of sides looking to invade uncharted territory. The Black Caps and the Proteas are no strangers to semi-finals but neither side have seized their opportunities and are yet to contest a World Cup final in their histories. Both destroyed the West Indies in similar fashion, one in the group stage, the other in the quarter-final, and it is difficult to find a way to separate two sides standing on the brink of potential greatness.
To Win Match
New Zealand 11/10
South Africa 7/10
The Black Caps are a side built in the image of their robust captain, Brendon McCullum. Their all-or-nothing approach to winning matches in this tournament is siphoned straight from the very essence of the antagonistic opening batsman. McCullum holds no quarter in attempting to belt almost everything delivered to him to the boundary and no mercy is shown in his refusal to hold back in-form bowlers for the final overs. Trent Boult bowled out his allotted ten overs on the trot in New Zealand’s quarter-final , picking up four wickets in the process. Boult has been a phenom in this tournament, leading the wicket-takers list with nineteen scalps in seven matches. His economy rate of 4.21 runs-per-over is boosted by the incredible fact that he has bowled fourteen maidens in 66 World Cup overs. He’s had a very important part to play in New Zealand having taken the most wickets of any side during the mandatory power plays. Their batsmen also have the best run-rate during this period with a quick start to the innings being imperative. Clearly, aggressive targeting of the first ten overs with both bat and ball will be the tactic employed.
It is one that has worked pretty well so far. New Zealand have romped to seven victories on the trot, unbeaten at this World Cup, taking them to sixteen wins from the last 21 ODI contests. This is a period of dominance unparalleled in New Zealand’s history. The Black Caps will, however, be forced to make a change to a unit that has prided itself on consistency in selection. Tearaway Adam Milne has been sidelined for the rest of the tournament with a heel complaint, leaving the door open for one of Matt Henry and Mitchell McClenaghan in a straight swop. The latter’s figures in his one World Cup match against Bangladesh may see Henry pushed into the side, but New Zealand would be remiss to have such a short memory. McClenaghan has one of the best strike-rates with the ball in world cricket and has troubled South African batsmen on a number of occasions. Speaking of previous contests, Martin Guptill will do well to keep his remarkable 237* at the forefront of his mind as his record against the Proteas is abysmal. Vettori vs Tahir in the spin battle also provides an interesting subplot. All in all, the Black Caps stack up strong and it’s possible that a fervent Auckland crowd could tip the outcome in their favour.
The Sydney Cricket Ground witnessed a cricketing miracle as the Proteas blew away Sri Lanka and broke the World Cup knockout hoodoo that had painfully pervaded for so long. However, it must be noted that Sri Lanka had a particularly poor day at the office. It was downright uncharacteristic on their part, but was partly brought about by the intensity that the Proteas showed early on with the ball. South Africa should expect a wholly different contest here in Auckland. The camp will be buoyed by their record against New Zealand since their fateful World Cup exit four years ago, winning six and losing two of the head-to-head contests. They have also won all five of their last ODIs against the Black Caps in New Zealand - but the flipside to these results is the fact that the Proteas have won only two of the six matches between the two in a World Cup setting.
The Proteas are the only team at the current tournament with five World Cup centurions; Amla, de Villiers, du Plessis, Miller and Duminy. New Zealand strangely have only one, Martin Guptill. South Africa have the highest strike-rate of any side at the tournament in the closing overs, a stat partly boosted by the match situations that the Proteas found themselves in against lesser opposition. What makes an interesting comparison for Auckland is that South Africa would prefer setting a target, while New Zealand would prefer chasing one. Given New Zealand’s prowess in the mandatory power plays, South Africa’s strategy will involve absorbing pressure in the first ten overs in an attempt to capitalise later on. However, losing wickets or allowing the New Zealand bowling attack to get on top early could lead to innings paralysis. Perhaps fighting fire with fire is the best way to oust the Black Caps. The only question that remains in selection is whether Kyle Abbott, who has been immense in his role with the new ball, will be replaced by fit-again Vernon Philander. The fifth bowler (Duminy/de Villiers) will also come under question in a way that wasn’t apparent against Sri Lanka. It is these crucial match-ups and moments that will swing what is expected to be a fiercely close contest.
Eden Park in Auckland will play host to this mammoth World Cup semi-final and the atmosphere will surely be electric. The thump and pomp of the crowd in Wellington as the Black Caps razed the West Indies was something to behold. Winning the toss and batting first seems to favour teams at Eden Park, although first-innings totals in the past seven ODIs played at the ground average 250. There is something to be said for batsmen getting “sucked in” to the short boundaries at the ground. The ball will swing in humid conditions and generally the pitch favours pace and bounce. The match is unlikely to be affected by more than a small shower.
VERDICT: New Zealand 11/10
There is something to be said for the fact that the Proteas are priced up as favourites against the hosts. No bookie will do this lightly given the setting and the history attached to South African cricket. This is probably the toughest match that I’ve had to call in a few years of writing these previews and is easily filled with the most dread. I can’t shake World Cup heartaches and therefore cannot shrug the growing sense that the Proteas will fail at some point. 2011 was an ominous example of how plain aggression can sway a cricket match and the Black Caps have rage in spades. Back New Zealand at an attractive price.