The only bad news is that South Africa can’t get any better than they did in destroying Sri Lanka in Sydney.
In winning a knockout match at a Cricket World Cup for the first time, all the boxes were ticked and emphatically so. In fact, it would be unfair to call this anything other than the perfect performance, a nine-wicket clubbing that has to be given a 10 out of 10 on the report card.
What can there be to not take even a half point away from the 10? Just because only three batsmen were required doesn’t mean the others wouldn’t have also starred. Besides, we know how potent this top six is.
The tone for the match was set with just the 10th ball of the innings when Quinton de Kock threw himself to his left to cling on, at the second attempt, to Kusal Perera’s edge off Kyle Abbott. It was pivotal in terms of settling the nerves. And when Tillekeratne Dilshan was snapped up low by Faf du Plessis off Dale Steyn, Sri Lanka were reeling at 4-2.
Having won what was considered a crucial toss and deciding to bat first, Sri Lanka were immediately under pressure. And they played like a side who were staring down the barrel the entire match. South Africa choking? More like them having their size 12s on the throats of their opponents and keeping their foot there.
Sri Lanka had come into the quarter-final full of runs, but also weakened by injuries. They then decided to gamble with team selection and their top-order at the wrong time of the competition. Yet, the reality is that they were never allowed to loosen the straps on the straitjacket that South Africa wrapped around them.
I had written that 260 would be a very, very good total on this Sydney pitch – although seasoned commentators reckoned otherwise. They had been blinded by the brilliant previous one-offs by AB de Villiers, Kumar Sangakkara and Glenn Maxwell in this tournament at the ground. They were talking in excess of 300. But 300 was never going to be on at this stage of the World Cup. History had shown that since 2000 in Sydney, South Africa average 254 with the bat and Sri Lanka 242.
That Sri Lanka were all out for 133 is testimony to the manner in which South Africa bowled and were backed up by energetic and accurate fielding and superb catching. And in targeting the small total – there was never scoreboard pressure to call it a ‘chase’, so although that argument is not quite put to bed – they did so in style.
De Kock played himself back into form, and backed up what I have consistently said throughout his streak of low scores: leave him to open and stop this rubbish about replacing him because a class player like him is only one good boundary shot away from being back in form. 78 runs off 57 balls with 12 fours says he is, which is a great bonus heading into the semi-finals.
The irony is that South Africa won with every player other than De Villiers either getting a wicket, catch or runs. That is surely an occurrence that you’ll have to dig extremely deep to find when last, if ever, happened.
Having said that, despite losing what could have been a crucial toss, De Villiers was brilliant as captain. He spoke before the match with pride, conviction and complete authority and the message was that his team was the best at this World Cup. And he and his men backed those words up with action.
He publicly said that he didn’t want to wear the wicketkeeping gloves, and therefore he guaranteed De Kock’s place, as he liked to be near his bowlers, chatting with them between deliveries. That showed in Sydney and the bowlers responded heroically.
De Villiers also showed perfect timing in his use of the bowlers and he got nine terrific overs out of JP Duminy at a time when the off-spinner might have been under pressure had his fast bowling trio not wreaked havoc in the top order.
In giving South Africa a perfect 10 for this performance, based on their commitment, intensity, catching, fielding, bowling, batting and self-belief, it means they travel to Auckland for Tuesday’s semi-final knowing that anything less than a repeat of the performance in Sydney will be lowering their high standards.
That’s not to say a nine out of 10 in Auckland won’t be enough to beat New Zealand or the West Indies. It should be. What I am saying is that no side in the world will come near to South Africa when they produce a perfect 10. And that includes any other team who also happens to come up with their perfect display on the day.
This was a dream performance and a huge statement made in capital letters. South Africa are in it to win it. Every other team still standing knows that – if they hadn’t already.