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South Africa’s tendency to chuck it all away, with predictable regularity, is inexplicable and well-documented. In the 1999 World Cup semi-final, they lost when they needed one run off four deliveries. In 2003, playing at home, they misread the Duckworth-Lewis chart and failed to make the semis. When it comes to the crunch, they have a habit of pushing the panic button.
Will this time be any different?
“There’s a different feeling with this team,” said Mark Boucher, who was at the centre of the madness that their 2003 exit was. In a rain-curtailed match, the Duckworth-Lewis chart had listed their ‘par score’ as 229.
The men in the middle assumed that was the revised target and so, Boucher defended Muralitharan back to the bowler when actually the team needed another single to win.
No longer chokers?
He’s put that behind him though as, he hopes, have the team. “We’ve been through a lot of tests last year, and we’ve come through with flying colours. We’ve handled pressure pretty well. Hopefully that’s a sign of things to come for us in the latter stages of this tournament. Hopefully, this time we can go the whole way,” said Boucher.
Coach Mickey Arthur was on the same page. “It’s a different set of players, different management. We could get beaten, and once again the chokers tag may surface. For us, that’s not an issue as long as we are playing to the best of our ability, as long as we’re not panicking in crucial situations. We’re not scared of losing. Mentally our guys are very strong now.”
South Africa, probably the strongest team in the competition, have won their last seven Twenty20 internationals. “We’ve improved in every department, there’s a lot more clarity in how we want to play the game. We’ve given this game a lot of thought. I’ve read all week about the unpredictability of it, but I still feel the best teams will prevail more often than not because they’re better equipped to handle the pressure,” Arthur said.
They might have a battle on their hands on Thursday, but only if the right Pakistan side turns up. Pakistan have won three matches — including the crunch Super Eights game against New Zealand — and lost one since they were mauled by England in their opener, but they can be trusted to shoot themselves in the foot on big occasions as well.
Against India, in the final of the last World Twenty20, Misbah-ul Haq had taken his team from a hopeless situation to one from where they should have won. Indian supporters are unlikely to forget his scoop that went straight to Sreesanth at short fine-leg as Pakistan fell short by five runs. Their other recent World Cup final was against Australia, in 1999, when they got bowled out for 132 after batting first.
However, when on song they’re as dangerous as they come. Umar Gul has been in sensational form (apart from being in a controversy), while both Saeed Ajmal and Shahid Afridi have been among the wickets as well. If both teams turn on the heat, this can be a classic contest — South Africa’s method versus Pakistan’s madness. Come to think of it, it might be fun if one’s choking and the other’s self-destructing as well.