Exorcising the choker tag

Neither side had played exceptional cricket though South Africa still was the fourth best side in the tournament: an indication if any of the quality on offer, writes S. Ram Mahesh.

All that preceded the crucial Super Eight match between England and South Africa pointed to a high-intensity battle. It was being built as Kevin Pietersen vs. Graeme Smith; there was talk of needle; the stakes were high — the loser would be knocked out of the tournament.

To add to matters, a few South African players were spotted, intoxicated in Grenada after the loss to New Zealand. England's journalists sought to make an issue of it; Smith played it down saying the drinking rules of the side hadn't been breached.

But, the quality of cricket itself, surely the first component of battle, wasn't expected to be of the highest standard. Neither side had played exceptional cricket though South Africa still was the fourth best side in the tournament: an indication if any of the quality on offer.

South Africa's troubles lay in adapting its one-toned pace attack to slow and low tracks. The Kensington Oval pitch with its pace and bounce helped circumvent that particular problem. England on the other hand was just "not turning up and producing" as captain Michael Vaughan said.

"If we win the next three games, we win the World Cup," South African captain Graeme Smith had said. "There'll be a lot of heat and pressure on both sides. We haven't achieved our level in this tournament, which has been disappointing, but we know if we perform, we can turn it all around." Makhaya Ntini was dropped. The fast-bowler hasn't been in the best of form in this World Cup, and South Africa strategised that Shaun Pollock and Charl Langeveldt offered more options through the innings with their subtleties.

Pollock and Langeveldt started off impeccably, as only five runs came in the first five overs. The presence of excessive swing was a bit of a puzzle. The clouds in the Bridgetown sky were scattered, nothing remotely overcast about it; and the breeze across the ground was unidirectional — how were Pollock and Langeveldt, from different ends, getting the ball to go opposite ways?

Vaughan, who had a session of comfort throwdowns with coach Duncan Fletcher the previous day, took 20 balls to get off the mark. But, it was the more settled Bell who was first dismissed. Choked by South Africa's opening bowlers, Bell picked a Langeveldt delivery that wasn't short enough to pull. Ashwell Prince did well to catch the swirling top-edge.

Bell's dismissal wasn't entirely a bad thing, for the arrival of the left-handed Andrew Strauss forced the bowlers to switch between lines.

The period of adjustment aided England. Vaughan pulled Langeveldt. Strauss was curiously aggressive. He hooked a venomous six. But, Andre Nel dismissed both Vaughan and Kevin Pietersen to leave England at 53 for three. England, through Andrew Strauss and Paul Collingwood, had survived a period Smith called "clinical pressure", but capitulated to Hall after Jacques Kallis got the crucial wicket of Strauss. 110 for three became 121 for eight in fewer than five overs.

"We were fully aware of what Hall could produce," said Vaughan on why the side was undone by the ball coming in. "It's always difficult for a new guy coming in to face reverse swing. We saw plenty of videos, in fact we may have seen too many. It takes away from the instinct of just reacting to the ball. But, yeah, we knew exactly what he was up to."

Hall was modest about what he had done. "Well, my first spell I thought was just conventional in-swing with the breeze pushing it that way, but with the second, I felt it was tailing in just a bit, and it was definitely reverse swing." Hall finished with career-best figures. Ravi Bopara hung in there, but England was dismissed for 154.

South Africa's chase was a spectacle because Graeme Smith and A. B. De Villiers walked out like cowboys, wishing to end it "now". Not a bowler was spared as overpowering strokes were unsheathed. "It's good to get a few runs in a big match," said Smith. "You can't win as a senior player. You either contribute too much or too little, there's a fine line."

The target was achieved in 19.2 overs: the equivalent of finishing a Test in less than three days.

"It's a very sad day for English cricket," said Vaughan. "It was an awful feeling to be booed, but rightly so. At 110 for three, we had 230-240 on the cards, that was the strategy.

"Unfortunately the way the story unfolded we had one of our famous collapses. It's been a disappointing six months with the Champions Trophy and the Ashes," he said. "We smiled our ways back to the flight on the back of four wins in the CB series, and I firmly believed we had a chance in the World Cup.

"I firmly believed we had the talent to do well. But, we have to sit down, look within, and find out why we haven't produced good one-day cricket since 1992. I'm not stupid, I know my form is an area of concern. But, if my captaincy is holding up... it'll be part of many conversations over the next few days."

Asked if victory had exorcised the choker tag, Smith said, "It was a pressure game and we demolished it. So, I guess yeah. But, the semifinal coming up is a pressure game, and we need to come up with a performance."

The Scores

Super Eight: England v South Africa. South Africa won by nine wickets.

England: I. Bell c Prince b Langeveldt 7; M. Vaughan lbw b Nel 17; A. Strauss c Smith b Kallis 46; K. Pietersen c Smith b Nel 3; P. Collingwood lbw b Hall 30; A. Flintoff b Hall 5; R. Bopara (not out) 27; P. Nixon c Boucher b Hall 1; S. Mahmood b Hall 0; M. Panesar c Boucher b Nel 2; J. Anderson lbw b Hall 0; Extras (b-4, lb-4, w-5, nb-3) 16. Total (in 48 overs) 154.

Fall of wkts: 1-9, 2-37, 3-53, 4-111, 5-115, 6-119, 7-121, 8-121, 9-144.

South Africa bowling: Pollock 10-2-17-0; Langeveldt 7-1-38-1; Nel 10-3-35-3; Hall 10-2-18-5; Kallis 8-0-22-1; Kemp 3-0-16-0.

South Africa: A. De Villiers c Nixon b Flintoff 42; G. Smith (not out) 89; J. Kallis (not out) 17; Extras (b-4, w-3, nb-2) 9. Total (for one wkt., in 19.2 overs) 157.

Fall of wkt: 85.

England bowling: Anderson 5-0-32-0; Mahmood 4.2-0-49-0; Flintoff 6-0-36-1; Panesar 2-0-24-0; Collingwood 2-0-12-0.