Smith & Co, the way to go

South Africa has been labelled a `choker' in the past. And not without reason since the side has snatched defeats from the jaws of victory in the World Cup. However, indications are that post `Wanderers' 435' the South Africans have turned more resilient, writes S. Dinakar.

One-day international cricket has a new leader. South Africa, at the acme, has been rewarded for consistency. And Australia has been punished for going off the boil in the last stretch leading to the World Cup. Still the difference in points — 128 and 125 — is only marginal.

South Africa's rise was buried in the din that accompanied Australia's slump. This probably was justified, since, had the Aussies retained form they would have stayed at the top.

Let's not, however, forget for a moment that it was South Africa's historic chase at the Wanderers last year — the side successfully pursued a mind-boggling 435 — in a match that shattered several barriers that exposed the Aussie chinks. It was also a game that could have left the Aussies with deep psychological scars when defending high totals.

Cricket is as much about mind as skill. Have the Australians, startlingly, turned vulnerable in a territory that is their own?

In a shocking revelation, stand-in captain Mike Hussey told `The Australian', "Under pressure, we just couldn't nail the yorkers or put the ball where we wanted to."

So, the Aussies feel the heat too. They are mortal, after all.

But then, judgments cannot be based on the Aussie performances in the Commonwealth Bank tri-series or the three-match Chappell-Hadlee series. The Aussies will have to be beaten on a bigger stage for a more conclusive verdict.

Interestingly, it is the South Africans who have been labelled `chokers' in the past. And not without reason since the side has snatched defeats from the jaws of victory in the World Cup. However, indications are that post `Wanderers' 435' the South Africans have turned more resilient. The side was on the brink against India at Cape Town and Port Elizabeth, but found men for the occasion in Justin Kemp and Herschelle Gibbs.

Has the side grown mentally stronger under Graeme Smith? Let's analyse the South Africa side, its strengths, shortcomings and performances over the year.

This is a side with tremendous depth and options, two critical factors in one-day cricket. It is a fit, flexible unit with a strong captain. The fielding is often exceptional, so is the running between the wickets. On the flip side, the attack is without a quality spinner.

The powerful Smith has settled down well with the fluent Abraham de Villiers in an attacking left-right opening association. The left-handed Smith, who shrugged off indifferent home form, is someone who can disrupt the rhythm of the bowlers.

De Villiers is a natural striker of the ball on both sides of the pitch. He has the reflexes and the footwork, but is impulsive. If the South Africans get starts, they will be hard to beat since the side's lower order is exceptionally strong. This is a unit that thrives on confidence.

Jacques Kallis — he has attempted to be more innovative lately — is reliable at No. 3. And Gibbs, the principal architect of the miracle at the Wanderers with a rip-roaring 175, adds flair to the line-up.

Ashwell Prince is the lone left-hander in the middle-order. This coupled with his fire-fighting abilities make him a key figure, especially when things go wrong.

Mark Boucher and Justin Kemp are both destructive but contrasting batsmen, who can alter scripts. Boucher cuts and pulls, Kemp clears the ground between cover and mid-wicket.

They are followed by Shaun Pollock, a languid, effortless striker of the ball, and Andrew Hall, a street-fighter. Given how deep the side can bat, it would be hard to count South Africa out at any stage.

Pollock and Kallis are multi-dimensional cricketers of rare ability. Hall is industrious with both bat and ball while Kemp can send down useful cutters. The side gleams with all-round riches.

The canny and ageless Pollock's precision, off-stump line, two-way movement, and subtle variations in length make him a deadly adversary for those facing him. Makhaya Ntini's aggression and bounce and his ability to straighten the odd delivery have posed searching questions to the batsmen. Kallis is a hustler with more than one trick.

Charl Langveldt has pace and swing; not too long ago he achieved a ODI hat-trick with reverse swing at the death in the Caribbean. Hall too reverses at a lively pace. If the pitch has an element of bounce Andre Nel could join the party.

Indeed, if the pitches assist the pacemen, South Africa can lay low most sides. If the wicket offers spin, the side could struggle. Left-armer Robin Peterson is not international class, and skipper Smith, maturing as captain, might be forced to send down off-spin. In several respects, the attack is one-dimensional.

The South Africans have, over the last 12 months, overcome Australia 3-2 at home, made the semifinals of the Champions Trophy and defeated both India and Pakistan at home.

In the Champions Trophy semifinals at Jaipur, the bowling came up short on a dry pitch lacking in pace against the West Indies. Bowling Pollock in the middle-overs, could be an answer.

The Australians adapt better to the conditions. However, the present side has been hit by injuries and appears to be drained out, physically and emotionally.

The Aussie batting thrived on the placid pitches in Auckland and Hamilton, in the last two ODIs in New Zealand. But then, in the two CB series finals, and in the first ODI at Wellington, when there was some juice in the surface, the Aussies were undone by lateral movement and bounce. Under pressure, the batting crumbled.

However, the Aussie batting could be motoring along consistently soon; there is too much class in the line-up for it to falter repeatedly. The influential Ponting, the big-hitting Symonds and the strokeful Clarke could be back.

Bigger worries pertain to Australian bowling. The injury to pace-spearhead Brett Lee, ruling him out of the World Cup, has left the side without someone who can strike, both at the beginning and the end. Shaun Tait, of extreme speed and swing, has enormous responsibility on his young shoulders.

Glenn McGrath's pace has dropped, and he is unable to extract trademark bounce. If the paceman does not achieve lateral movement, he could be clubbed. Left-arm paceman Nathan Bracken is consistent, but not always incisive. Here, Staurt Clark's lift and cut could provide the team with a solution. Lively left-armer Mitchell Johnson, despite the mauling in New Zealand, is an exciting talent and a genuine mover of the ball. The Aussies have found it hard to stem the flow of runs in the middle overs.

And this is where Andrew Symonds' tight off-spin comes into the picture. His recovery — the Aussies have also missed his batting in the last 15 overs — is crucial to Australia's fortunes.

Shane Watson has all-round potential, but the paceman's bowling seems to lack discipline to build pressure in the middle overs.

Left-arm Chinaman bowler Brad Hogg is a useful, often under-rated customer, but Australia does lack a match-winning spinner.

All factors taken into account, it would still be foolhardy to write Australia off. As New Zealand captain Stephen Fleming said, "It's an oxymoron to say there's a weak Australian team. There's no such thing."