• SA are favourites – Smith

    South Africa should be the strong favourites for Saturday’s game, Graeme Smith told the ICC website in his exclusive column.

    Even as the much-awaited ICC Champions Trophy has kicked off with the promise of some exciting contests, I don’t think the South Africa players who have played in the three recent fixtures against England can have any complaints about the quality of their preparation.

    The key for them now is to make sure that they are mentally prepared to go against Sri Lanka on Saturday. The format of the tournament doesn’t allow for slow starts, and the one thing I’d have liked to see was South Africa bat first in at least one of those three games.

    As much as it’s encouraging to have seen both Quinton De Kock and Hashim Amla get scores, I think our strength lies in the top three setting a platform to allow the likes of AB de Villiers, David Miller and Chris Morris to be explosive towards the back end of the innings. These three are top players, and given that Sri Lanka has conceded 320 and 356 in the lead-up to the tournament, its seam attack can be put under real pressure if South Africa gets it right.

    Morris’s batting has really surprised me 

    One area I think the side has improved in is in the all-rounders department. It was something I mentioned in my last column, and the likes of Chris Morris coming in and doing well means the side looks well balanced. What I think the selectors need to avoid is shying away from picking frontline bowlers in favour of bolstering the batting with all-rounders.

    For me, Morris has earned the right to start. He has looked a good option with both bat and ball, and if the attack also then contains Kagiso Rabada, Wayne Parnell, Morne Morkel and Imran Tahir, there is a very attacking nature to it and I believe they possess the ability do some damage on most surfaces in England.

    Morris’s batting has really surprised me. The consistency with which he strikes the ball, something we saw in the IPL as well, is coupled with real composure under pressure.

    South Africa will need Imran Tahir’s skill in the tournament.

    As much as I had a chuckle at the nature of Imran Tahir’s tweaked hamstring (running on gloves as 12th man in the ODI series), he is huge for AB and this team. He and Rabada are first and second in the MRF Tyres ICC Player Rankings for ODI Bowlers respectively, and with the wickets perhaps being dryer than usual, I see Tahir’s influence being massive in terms of his ability to turn a game.

    South Africa will need his skill in the tournament, and part of me feels that it’s not a bad option to have kept Tahir away from England a little bit in those last two ODIs. He’s bowled a lot in the IPL, and if South Africa comes up against England at a key stage of the tournament, as captain I’d be quite happy that the England batsmen would have had less of a look at him.

    Looking ahead to Saturday, I’d think South Africa will be looking to bat first and put runs on the board. As much as The Oval is usually a tough ground to defend on, in my playing days I always felt your best chance of beating sub-continent teams was to get big runs in the first innings.

    The Sri Lanka attack, even with Lasith Malinga, isn’t what it was when it contained the likes of Chaminda Vaas and Muttiah Muralidaran. Sri Lanka’s strength will be trying to score runs first up and squeeze teams. It has always found a way to put you under pressure as a batting side, and again as a team – it always seems to find a way to be competitive at the big tournaments.

    It’ll be interesting to see the tactics both sides look to employ. One thing you know as a batsman against Sri Lanka is that if there is any kind of slow, spinning surface, its bowling attack will make it difficult for you. South Africa will be hoping to give itself the opportunity to use its batting power, and if it gets first use of the surface, I expect it to dominate the game.

    The big thing for South Africa is finding its edge. That aggressive streak comes out when it is playing at its best. The team needs to be aggressive with its selections to create that. I like the option of Parnell with the new ball, especially on the grassier tracks like Birmingham.

    I felt it was a bit of a cop-out from Eoin Morgan to complain about the state of the pitch at Lord’s. Yes, that brought Parnell into the game, but England simply didn’t bat well enough. As batsmen, especially in England, it’s a key skill to be able to assess the conditions. They didn’t do that well enough, and I think all too often bowlers are seen as little more than bowling machines in the shorter formats.

    If Parnell can swing the ball and strike early, you then have guys like Morkel to come on first change, a great option to have as captain.

    If Parnell can swing the ball and strike early, you then have guys like Morkel to come on first change.

    I’ve always said that wicket-taking options are key in limited overs cricket. They allow you to control the game and control scoring as a captain. Having people that can knock the best players over gives you the best chance of restricting sides in the modern era.

    South Africa should be the strong favourites for Saturday’s game. The Proteas were very dominant against Sri Lanka in the summer at home, and that won’t have been erased from the minds of that Sri Lanka playing group.

    If we can get our selection right, we have great options in terms of being attacking with the ball, as well as the batting power to back that up. I can’t wait for the tournament to get under way, and to see how this group of players goes about battling the pressure situations. 

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    Craig Stirton