As predicted in the World Cup Preview, the semi finalists are Australia, New Zealand, India and South Africa and on Tuesday the first semi-final of the 2015 cricket world cup will be played between New Zealand and South Africa. What makes this a particularly fascinating encounter is that neither side has ever made the final and both have reputations of ’choking’ under pressure.
Six times New Zealand have been there and the South Africans, three times. The last time the tournament was held in Australasia, the Kiwis and the South Africans both came so close they could smell it but one was defeated by a wonderful innings from 22 year old Inzamam-Ul-Haq and the other by the weather and an incomprehensible decision by Kepler Wessels.
This is undoubtedly the best one day team New Zealand has ever produced. It has explosive batting from former wicketkeeper/batsman Brendon McCallum, who has re-invented himself as a ferociously aggressive, high risk opening batsman and outstanding fielder. In support, he has powerful hitters in Corey Anderson and Luke Ronchi, together with the steadiness of one of the best NZ batsmen of all time in Kane Williamson, the fluency of SA born Grant Elliott and the in-form Martin Guptill, who has just made the highest score in world cup history. For the first time, NZ has a three pronged pace attack of genuine speed and ability in Boult, Southee and Milne and the spin of Daniel Vettori, who on the verge of retirement, seems to have found fresh energy. They are backed by good fielding and in a country where rugby has always been close to a religion, for a few weeks at least, cricket has been king. For the Kiwis, this could be the first leg of a double world cup triumph, with rugby to come later in the year and in a country of fewer than five million people, it would be a stupendous achievement.
In the lead up to the world cup, New Zealand has been outstanding and they have stormed through this tournament with seven wins from seven. Expectations are huge. The Auckland stadium will be full and support fanatical. There will also, no doubt, be thousands of South African expats present, people who left their corruption and crime ridden homeland behind in search of something better. Many of them will be supporting the visitors.
The key for the South Africans will be to remove McCallum quickly and apply pressure. Ross Taylor, usually a free flowing batsman, has made a few runs but not once has he looked anything like comfortable and he has played scarcely an aggressive shot. It would almost be preferable to keep him in than get him out. When they bat, the SA team will have to find a way to survive the opening blast from Southee and the outstanding Boult and ensure de Villiers is not in too early.
The South Africans are a well balanced side with two of the best batsmen in the world in de Villiers and Amla and a solid middle order. The pace attack of Steyn, who has not been at his best, Morkel and Abbott is strong and leg spinner Imran Tahir is a key player, especially against New Zealand. They have faltered though, during the tournament, losing to both India and Pakistan.
Both sides have shown mental frailty in the past and NZ are poor chasers when playing South Africa, so the toss is important. Luck may well play a part. Auckland is a small ground and the short boundaries will not suit the spinners but on the plus side, this is probably the only ground in this world cup where the bowlers have had something like an even chance. Everywhere else, the balance has been horribly tilted in favour of batsmen and this has led to what has possibly been the least interesting of world cups. However, this semi-final is very unlikely to be boring and may be the best contest of the tournament. At the end of it there will be elation and despair and the winner will play in the final for the first time.