Attitude is the question

Four years ago, the South Africans got the Duckworth and Lewis arithmetic wrong on a rainy night in Durban; the team-management had blundered. This time Caribbean sun could shine on them, writes S. Dinakar.

Winning teams have a common characteristic — they play the key moments well.

South Africa's previous World Cup attempts have been flawed. When it mattered the most, the side floundered. It can be argued that the side was unlucky. But then, winning teams make their own luck.

The foremost challenge before Graeme Smith and his men would be to retain their intensity throughout the competition in the Caribbean.

The side has to exude the confidence of a World No. 1; ruthlessness and end-game skills are vital. South Africa would also have to exorcise the ghosts of the past World Cup failures.

There is a view that South Africa, otherwise a well-oiled unit of multi-dimensional cricketers, lacks the aggression of a champion.

There, many believe, is a soft spot in the team, which has been exploited by opponents.

Are the South Africans mentally vulnerable against sides, such as Australia, that can apply relentless pressure? Yes and No.

Yes, if the past campaigns are analysed. No, if we dissect that believe-it-or-not chase of 435 at the Wanderers in March last year. In fact, that was a match, which could have left the Aussies with deep psychological scars.

Any side that successfully pursues a target as daunting as the one the Aussies had set, on any pitch, has certain inherent strengths.

South Africa is in Group `A' with Australia (Netherlands and Scotland are the other teams). And sparks could fly when the sides meet.

The pitch at St. Kitts — the venue for the contest — favours batsmen and the ground is small. From a psychological perspective, this will be a critical match for both sides. The teams would also be striving for momentum.

South Africa has the resources. It bats deeper than most sides in the World Cup. Mark Boucher, Justin Kemp, Shaun Pollock and Andrew Hall follow the top-five batsmen. Boucher, Pollock and Hall have Test hundreds, while Kemp, who could be used as a floater in the line-up, is a destructive batsman.

And the top five — skipper Smith, Abraham de Villiers, Jacques Kallis, Herschelle Gibbs and Ashwell Prince — is a well-settled one. After a shaky beginning in the home season, the South African batting has rediscovered rhythm.

Kallis and Pollock are all-rounders of exceptional quality, while Hall, a bowling all-rounder, and Kemp, of the batting variety, do provide options to the side. These are versatile men who save places.

The South Africans adjusted surprisingly well to the conditions on the tour of the Caribbean in 2004-05, blanking West Indies 5-0 in the ODIs. Smith's men will take a lot of heart from that campaign.

Gibbs averaged 95.00 in the series, Smith, 45.66, and Kallis, 45.00. The side has a fine blend of those with innings building skills and the heavy-hitters. However, the South Africans might struggle against a competent spin attack if the pitches offer turn; the pacing of the innings has not always been ideal.

The inclusion of Ashwell Prince could also be a ploy to disrupt the bowlers' line. Smith, at the top, and Prince, in the middle-order, are two strategically placed left-handers.

Kallis is technically accomplished, but his batting can be one-paced on occasions; lately, though, he has attempted to be more innovative in the power play overs. If either Smith or Kallis constructs an innings of substance, a flair batsman like Gibbs might to able to bat with greater freedom.

The South African bowling relies heavily on pace. Shaun Pollock, with his two-way seam movement, impeccable off-stump line, clever use of the crease, and subtle variations in length and pace, brings with him years of experience. Even as his pace has dropped, his wicket-taking rate has increased.

Makhaya Ntini's aggression and improved control have probed and consumed batsmen. In his last trip to the Caribbean, he picked up 10 wickets at just 15.80.

Interestingly, it was Charl Langeveldt who scalped the most batsmen (11) in the series, striking with reverse swing at the Death. On dry grounds, and in humid conditions, reverse swing would be a key element.

Hall is another paceman who can bend it the other way. The hustling Andre Nel adds to the attack. Then there is Kallis to hit the deck and the bat hard.

South Africa might have erred in not picking left-armer Paul Harris. The side clearly misses a front-line spinner. This could hurt the team in the later stages, particularly on the West Indian surfaces. Left-arm spinning all-rounder Robin Peterson is a cricketer of limited ability.

You can expect South Africa to bat and field well. Smith, maturing as captain, led the side to back-to-back victories over India and Pakistan at home. But history does not favour the side; it has never progressed beyond the World Cup semifinals.

Four years ago, the South Africans got the Duckworth and Lewis arithmetic wrong on a rainy night in Durban; the team-management had blundered. The Caribbean sun could shine on them.

Players to watch

Graeme Smith: An improving captain, he has steered the side through a demanding phase. Smith is also a dominant top-order left-handed batsman who can make the most of the field restrictions, and then consolidate. Though a predominantly on-side player, Smith's off-side game has taken a turn for the better. He has struck an effective opening partnership with fluent right-hander Abraham de Villiers. In South Africa, four years ago, he was drafted into the squad as an emergency replacement for the injured Jonty Rhodes. Now, Mr. Smith is the captain. The 26-yearold southpaw has 3683 runs in 104 ODIs at 38.36 (Strike Rate 80.23) with six hundreds.

Jacques Kallis: The South African vice-captain is arguably the world's most valuable cricketer. Kallis' batting, stemming from strong fundamentals, is a great source of strength to his side. At No. 3, he is the key man. Kallis has a sound defence and the big strokes, but, on occasions, has been tied down by quality spin. Happily for his side, the 31-year-old cricketer has been pacing his innings much better this season. Kallis' bustling pace bowling _ he has strong shoulders and wrists _ has both contained and struck. Kallis has a whopping 8520 runs from 247 ODIs at 44.37 (SR 70.70) with 14 centuries. He also has 225 wickets at 31.01 (Economy Rate 4.81) with two five-wicket hauls.

Herschelle Gibbs: His explosive 175 against Australia at the Wanderers last year has to be among the greatest innings in one-day cricket. Simply put, Gibbs is a match-winner. He uses his feet well, is fluent on both sides of the wicket and can force the opposition to change tactics. On the flip side, he can be impulsive and reckless. The right-hander, likely to walk in at No. 4, should keep the scoring rate ticking in the crucial middle-overs. And he is still brilliant on the field. Gibbs has 6356 runs from 198 ODIs at 35.50 (SR 81.93). The 33-year-old batsman has also notched up 16 ODI hundreds.

Shaun Pollock: He is still a very influential cricketer. Pollock's crafty pace bowling builds pressure on the batting side. His accuracy and variations enable him to strike. How the all-rounder operates on the West Indian pitches will be interesting, particularly since there has been a slump in his pace. On the South African surfaces this season, he consistently sliced through the top order. He also adds weight to his side's lower order. Pollock's ability to clear the ground effortlessly makes him a dangerous adversary. He has swung several games with his languid ways with the willow. The 33- year-old cricketer has 2969 runs from 274 ODIs at 24.94 (SR 85.51) and 373 wickets at 23.74 (ER 3.71) with five five-wicket hauls.

Makhaya Ntini: The ability to straighten the ball from a wide of the crease release coupled with the bounce he can extract make him an engaging pace bowler. Add to this his limitless energy and great heart, and we have a world-class fast bowler. Ntini is the spearhead of a worthy pace attack and a new ball combination of contrast he and Pollock certainly are. This exciting bowler has the ability to operate at any stage of the innings. The 29-year-old Ntini has 231 wickets in 144 ODIs at 22.94 (ER-4.40).