The memories of previous cricket World Cups are stamped like a permanent bruise upon aching South African hearts. The farcical exit of 1992. An unexpected masterclass from Brian Lara in 1996. An implosion of such epic proportions that in 1999, grown men wept unashamedly. A catastrophic mathematical miscalculation at home in 2003. A deserved overconfident whipping at the hands of Australia in 2007 and yet another collapse under pressure in 2011. South Africans barely bristled in 2007 and 2011, hearts so hardened by failure after failure at world tournaments. The Proteas return to Sydney to rattle the nerves of their fans, a setting of many of South Africa’s finest and most admirable cricketing moments. Their opponents are Sri Lanka, seasoned veterans in the art of ousting more fancied opposition in knockout fixtures.
To Win Match
South Africa 4/10
Sri Lanka 7/4
“”It’s all about us playing good cricket and you can’t play good cricket if you put yourself under pressure. It hampers your thinking processes. It’s important that we play good cricket and whatever the end result, we can then talk about it afterwards. But if we start thinking about winning, winning, winning, it’s going to be tough for them to go out and perform. That’s how we have been playing for a long time and it’s helped. There is no other secret to it. It’s about guys handling that pressure much better than others.” – Mahela Jayawardene
I remember it all. The agony, frustration; the horror. Imagine how imprinted such images are upon the collective consciousness of the Proteas camp. In previous World Cups, the nation believed. South Africa generally trampled all in their path on the way to mental collapse in the knockout stages. However, 2015 is different. The squad seems stressed, nervous, desperate. South Africa have never looked more on the brink of a meltdown. The schizophrenic nature of captain AB de Villiers’ responses to the press can only be interpreted as a window into the psyche of the squad at large. They don’t know what the answers are. And they are scared to death.
There are too many ghosts from the World Cup past that haunt cerebral passageways in this side, making not only decision-making unclear but the rational course to success a murky one. Read the above quote again, it provides clarity on where the Proteas have already gone wrong this year. One would be hard pressed to peruse it and not come to the conclusion that Jayawardene was describing the exact antithesis of the Proteas. So what is the answer for a side that trounced Sri Lanka less than a year ago in their own backyard in a one-day series? It’s simple, really. The Proteas need merely go out and enjoy the occasion. Soak up the atmosphere, realise the privilege of being present at the world’s biggest cricketing event and aim to do something special. With such a bleak knockout record they may do well to realise that they are in fact the outsiders in this contest, whatever the bookies suggest, and should play with the freedom that such a tag demands. A smile in the process wouldn’t prove a hindrance, in victory or in defeat.
For Sri Lanka, it all comes down to experience. The looming quarter-final is nothing that much of the first-team and touring party have not already dealt with on multiple occasions. Let’s not forget that Sri Lanka’s side is made up of pressure players, cricketers who have won trophies and dealt with the various situations one encounters when knockout matches reach fever pitch. There is no substitute for the comfort of belief. Their tag of dark horses at world tournaments should have been cast aside over a decade ago.
Sri Lanka won the tournament in 1996, reached the semi-finals in 2003 and have been the losing finalists in the past two editions. They are a menacing side in a winner-takes-all contest. They have played more sudden-death matches than any other side over the past two tournaments and can include two World T20 finals to their list of achievements. Indeed, they are the current World T20 trophy holders, a tournament in which they beat South Africa in the group stage by prompting a notorious Protea collapse in the chase. Sri Lanka were also the side that dumped South Africa out of the 2003 World Cup in Durban, albeit due to Shaun Pollock’s mathematical incompetence. The only question that remains is whether the Sri Lankans can peak in the same manner as previous tournaments – when it counts the most.
Lasith Malinga has made a remarkable recovery from an operation that saw him unable to bowl for four months. He made his comeback in the World Cup warm-up matches and has since taken eleven wickets at an average of 20.64 in his last five outings. At the death, there is no-one in world cricket more experienced and dangerous. Of course, Kumar Sangakkara’s four consecutive World Cup centuries have been a talking point and stats show that only AB de Villiers compares to Sangakkara in ODI cricket over the past two years. Age simply refuses to catch up to the wily elder statesman. Yet this is a trend perfectly encapsulated by Sri Lankan cricket. Tillakaratne Dilshan opens the batting, bowls and is electrifying in the field. He is 38-years-old. Mahela Jayawardene is but a year younger, made his debut in 1998 and has amassed over 12,000 ODI runs. Sangakkara and Jayawardene reside in the top five ODI run scorers of all-time, Dilshan in eleventh. To put that into perspective, the only South African to keep company with this prolificacy is Jacques Kallis. Sri Lanka has all the history, tools and know-how at their disposal to go deep at the 2015 showpiece.
The Proteas have special memories of the SCG. Beating Australia at the ground in the 1992 World Cup will rank highly, as well as a remarkable comeback to win the New Year’s Test by five runs a year later. Graeme Smith received a standing ovation walking to the crease with a broken hand, South Africa nine down. Sri Lanka will draw upon bowling Australia out for 158 to win the match by eight wickets in 2012. Both sides have already played a World Cup match at the SCG – South Africa mauling the West Indies by 257 runs, Sri Lanka failing to chase a stiff Australian total. The match is unlikely to be affected by rain.
VERDICT: Sri Lanka 7/4
Yes, South Africa on paper are the most talented side at the tournament. Yes, on their day they can blow away any and all opposition. This well worn rhetoric fails to compensate for the cold, hard fact that the Proteas are mentally not up for the challenge. The panic that grips the side in these fixtures can only be described as symptoms of abuse. The cycle must be broken or the pattern continues. It’s a catch-22 conundrum, a paradox if you will. There is no solution to losing, except winning. And the only answer lies in Jayawardene’s quote.