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June 10, 1999

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Proteas through to the semis

Prem Panicker

The wheels came back on the professional South African machine, and predictably, the side rolled over the Kiwis to power into the semifinals ahead of the field.

Today, for the Proteas, was one of those 100% days and when they play that way, you look hard for a little chink in the armour and come away disappointed. The catch with SA -- 'catch' if you are looking at it from an opposing point of view, that is -- is that they are clinical to a fault. When batting, they pace things just so. When bowling, the length and line appears to have been calculated in advance, probably with a slide rule. And in the field, with Rhodes and Gibbs outstanding and the rest incredibly competent, they add a good 40, 45 to the target. But the real key to their fielding comes not in their diving stops, but in the way they check singles. Almost as if working to a plan, they have some quick shies at the wicket early on, and that puts the batsmen on notice. From then on -- and we saw this happen today as well -- the batsmen tend to think twice before attempting a run if it is anywhere within a couple of yards of any fielder.

This means that in addition to the runs actively saved, there are the runs not attempted, and when you add all that up, a score of 287 -- which is what SA put up today -- works out to a de facto score of about 350. And that in turn pretty much shuts the opposition right out of the game.

Cronje won the toss, opted to bat on an Edgbaston track that looked a beauty, and from then on, the South Africans hardly put a foot wrong. Kirsten and Gibbs, both out of form in this tournament, batted themselves in against Allott (who with his 19th wicket, that of Gibbs, becomes the record holder for most wickets in a world cup) and Nash. And once they had seen the fidgets off the new ball, began stroking the ball around, finding the gaps and pushing the singles, concentrating on slow, steady accumulation. At the halfway mark, they were going at just over four, but seemingly unworried -- it is as if everything these guys do is calculated to a nicety well in advance.

Kirsten and Gibbs in fact looked good to register individual hundreds when they fell against the run of play -- Kirsten mishitting a paddle off Astle to find square leg, and Gibbs playing all over a superb inswinging yorker from Allott. Before their dismissals, however, both did enough to bat themselves back into touch. Gibbs is fluent off the back foot, Kirsten is predominantly front foot, and both were middling beautifully as the innings wore on -- an ominous sign for future opponents, who could till this point have been banking on the fact that the SA top order has been prone to collapsing.

Klusener was sent in at one drop, probably with the idea of giving him a few overs (a little over 13, in fact) to pace himself, but fell tamely, getting one from Larsen on off seaming in, going for the drive then changing his mind too late to keep the ball going through the gate onto the stumps.

But the loss of SA's enforcer meant little -- Jacques Kallis and Hansie Cronje produced brilliant cameos, Cronje being particularly severe on Chris Cairns whom he hit out of the park twice on the trot in the penultimate over while Kallis showed a talent for hitting hard, straight and often, the partnership powering SA to 287 in the allotted overs.

Allott alone, among the Kiwi bowlers, impressed to an extent, though even he struggled for movement on a docile pitch. The rest were line and length at best, but once the foundation was made, line and length was never going to be enough. The Kiwis have been really struggling with their third seamer -- Cairns, coming on after Nash and Allott, has been expensive in his first spells throughout this competition, and you begin to wonder if Simon Doull has any purpose other than the purely decorative, in this outfit.

The tale of the New Zealand batting is best left unsaid. The South Africans, again working to an obviously pre-laid plan, concentrated on banging the ball in hard, hitting the deck around the three quarter length mark and pushing the batsmen onto the back foot.

A lovely ploy on a batting track, if you have that extra yard of pace, which the Proteans do. The front foot is where you want to be to hit through the line -- once pushed onto the back foot, you lose a lot of your leverage, especially if there is no width on offer for you to hit square on either side with the horizontal bat shots. To make it worse, the Kiwis are predominantly front foot players, and this meant that they were severely handicapped against this line of attack (makes you wonder if the Indians, who have to play them next, were watching and learning?)

The tactic not only kept the innings from getting off to a flier, but put the Kiwis on the back foot in another sense when Kallis, using all the strength of his shoulders, made deliveries rear awkwardly around off stump to force edges from both Astle and Horne. Craig McMillan, highly rated as a coming star, has no play off the back foot at all and with the Protean pacemen working like well-drilled dolphins at a waterpark, he found himself pinned onto the back foot and increasingly frustrated as the ask rate climbed by the over.

Fleming is the one batsman in the Kiwi ranks who is good off either foot, but of late, his problem has been shocking lapses of concentration and one such had him mishitting a slower ball from Pollock (who, later in the day, was to produce a beaut of a change down, bowling one with no change in action at 64 mph to go through Nash's flailing bat and onto his stumps) down the throat of mid off, to effectively seal the side's fate.

Watching the Kiwi innings was like being ringside while a boa constrictor was at dinner -- the bowling and fielding wrapping itself around the batsmen and then slowly, inexorably, squeezing them to death. Not a pleasant sight, that, if you don't wear the South African colours.

In the event, South Africa are through to the semifinals. And the Kiwis, stuck on three points thanks to the quirks of the weather, need to win against India on Saturday to qualify for the last four.

So we are, finally, down to the wire. Three days left in the Super Sixes, three games to play and on each day, one semifinal berth will be decided.


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