A night of jangling nerves

The word ‘chokers' did the rounds with vehemence and South Africa had itself to blame for an inexplicable meltdown at the slightest hint of pressure during the chase against New Zealand, writes K. C. Vijaya Kumar.

His voice choked. His eyes seemed a touch damp. Graeme Smith looked shattered and the inquisition that followed in the post-match press conference was akin to twisting a knife into a broken heart.

The questions ranging from euphemisms to plain-speak probed that one vulnerability which has derailed the Proteas in high-profile matches — the ability to collapse like a pack of cards. “I feel terrible. It is difficult to gather my thoughts at this moment and say what we are going through or why we lost. The truth is we were not good enough,” the South African captain said.

The story was different though ahead of the ICC World Cup quarterfinal against New Zealand at the Sher-e-Bangla National Stadium in Mirpur on March 25. South Africa held the aces though the fear about its fallibility in knockout games remained in the background. “We are up against a challenge,” said Daniel Vettori as the New Zealand skipper was well aware of the strengths of the Proteas.

In the end, New Zealand proved equal to the task and in the second biggest upset of the tournament after Ireland's surge against England, the Black Caps defeated Smith's men by 49 runs. The word ‘chokers' did the rounds with vehemence and South Africa had itself to blame for an inexplicable meltdown at the slightest hint of pressure during the chase.

New Zealand's 221 for eight from 50 overs was a decent score on a slow pitch with varying bounce but it was not the distant horizon. The South Africans however made it appear so while their lack of self-belief in close games became evident.

Vettori's men needed early wickets and in the very first over off-spinner Nathan McCullum prised out Hashim Amla. The other three cogs in the top-order — Smith, Jacques Kallis and A. B. de Villiers — did the initial spadework but failed to shepherd the chase.

Smith chanced his arms against Jacob Oram, who had an incredible night in which he pouched three catches and prised out four wickets. Kallis (47) swivelled and pulled Tim Southee and saw a sprinting Oram defy gravity and pluck the catch at mid-wicket. A. B. de Villiers tested Martin Guptill's arm and regretted and with J. P. Duminy losing his poise against Nathan McCullum, the South Africans had granted a veneer of invincibility to New Zealand's modest score. “The middle overs were a tricky phase, the ball was soft and New Zealand was squeezing us but sadly we did not show composure and kept losing wickets,” Smith said.

From 121 for five, South Africa's slide gathered an avalanche's momentum despite Francois du Plessis' (36) fire-fighting skills. Oram proved to be Vettori's talisman and he castled Plessis. Soon South Africa was limping back to the pavilion with just 172 from 43.2 overs and the New Zealanders were ecstatic. “Ours is a small country and this is a wonderful achievement,” said Vettori.

It was a day when New Zealand played the percentages well. Batting first, Vettori's men found an anchor through the surprisingly dour bats of Jesse Ryder (83, 121b, 8x4) and Ross Taylor (43). The duo charted a 114-run third-wicket partnership that proved to be the spine of an innings, which was marred by the openers' cheap dismissals and the lower-order's timidity. Kane Williamson lent some flutter in the closing overs and as Vettori said, ‘221 was defendable' on a night of jangling nerves.

THE SCORES

Third quarterfinal, Mirpur, March 25. New Zealand won by 49 runs.

New Zealand: M. Guptill c Botha b Steyn 1; B. McCullum c & b Peterson 4; J. Ryder c sub b Tahir 83; R. Taylor c Kallis b Tahir 43; S. Styris b Morkel 16; K. Williamson (not out) 38; N. McCullum c Duminy b Steyn 6; J. Oram b Morkel 7; D. Vettori b Morkel 6; L. Woodcock (not out) 3; Extras (b-4, lb-4, w-6) 14. Total (for eight wkts., in 50 overs) 221.

Fall of wickets: 1-5, 2-16, 3-130, 4-153, 5-156, 6-188, 7-204, 8-210.

South Africa bowling: Peterson 9-0-49-1; Steyn 10-0-42-2; Botha 9-0-29-0; Morkel 8-0-46-3; Tahir 9-0-32-2; Kallis 3-1-6-0; Duminy 2-0-9-0.

South Africa: H. Amla c Vettori b N. McCullum 7; G. Smith c sub b Oram 28; J. Kallis c Oram b Southee 47; A. B. de Villiers (run out) 35; J. P. Duminy b N. McCullum 3; F. du Plessis c Southee b Oram 36; J. Botha b Oram 2; R. Peterson c B. McCullum b Oram 0; D. Steyn c Oram b N. McCullum 8; M. Morkel c sub b Woodcock 3; I. Tahir (not out) 0; Extras (lb-2, w-1) 3. Total (in 43.2 overs) 172.

Fall of wickets: 1-8, 2-69, 3-108, 4-121, 5-121, 6-128, 7-132, 8-146, 9-172.

New Zealand bowling: N. McCullum 10-1-24-3; Vettori 10-0-39-0; Southee 9-0-44-1; Oram 9-1-39-4; Woodcock 5.2-0-24-1.