South Africa’s three-decade struggle to get past World Cup semi-finals wrote itself a new chapter at Eden Gardens on Thursday, with a terrible start to their innings eventually proving the deciding passage as Australia, who entered the second semi-final on seven wins on the trot, kept their opponents to 212 in 49.4 overs and chased their target down for the loss of seven wickets in 47.2 overs.
To their credit, South Africa turned it on after a very sloppy start with the ball and three dropped catches, but ultimately, they did not have enough runs on the board which underlines their nation’s struggles in knockout matches. And thus, to Birmingham 1999 and Gros Islet 2007 can be added Kolkata 2023, giving Australia a 3-0 record against South Africa in ICC tournament semi-finals.
And what separated South Africa from turning 212 – a total which owed predominantly to a century from David Miller – into something more threatening under lights on a tricky pitch was the breakaway start provided to Australia’s chase via Travis Head, who struck a blazing 62, and David Warner who kept the Kolkata fans enthralled all day, first with his electric out-fielding and customary ‘Pushpa’ shuffle-dance move and then with a vital 29 off 18 balls that shaved off 60 runs from his team’s target, in just six overs. Once again, in a World Cup knockout match, South Africa collectively let themselves down in all departments, with two dropped catches in the span of two overs allowing Head to get his half-century.
Metaphorically, the ominous slate-grey sky that enveloped Kolkata from daybreak to sundown, and under which Temba Bavuma opted to bat and then started this team’s slide by failing to score, was reflective of the gloom that beset South Africa from the first over of the match.
Bavuma won a good toss, given the status attached to this match and how tough chasing at Eden Gardens has been in the tournament, but any advantage gained from the flip of the coin quickly dissipated. Bavuma’s wretched World Cup was extended with another failure with the bat, this time out for a duck when he felt for a delivery from Mitchell Starc and nicked off in the first over of the match. Quinton de Kock, who entered this match with over 500 runs and four centuries in the tournament, succumbed to dot-ball pressure and tried to manufacture a shot against Josh Hazlewood and was brilliantly held by Pat Cummins who ran backwards from mid-on to take the miscued shot. South Africa were 8/2 and their faces said it all.
Aiden Markram, unaccustomed to batting so early in any match, could not time his shots from the time he arrived and his dismissal for 10 off 22 balls was limp. At the first chance of hitting a wide ball from Starc, Markram threw his arms out and sliced a catch to point. Rassie van der Dussen potted around for 31 deliveries before he also threw in the towel, out for just 6 when he edged Hazlewood into slip’s lap. The score was 24/4, and a crisis had set in.
A short hold-up on account of a slight drizzle gave the next pair time to plan, and on resumption it was Miller who showed some fight, hitting Adam Zampa into the stands twice before whipping Cummins for four. Heinrich Klaasen took the hint and also got purring with a counter-attack on his mind, and he and Miller dented Australia briefly in a partnership worth 95 during which Zampa was taken for runs.
Seeing this, as well as the slowish nature of the Eden Gardens surface, Cummins went to Head for offspin and the part-timer brought two wickets in two balls with Klaasen bowled for 47 when completely missing the line, and Marco Jansen lbw for a golden duck.
This left Miller without batting partners, but he still summoned great inner resolve to march to a second World Cup century – and first since 2015 – in what was a very fine effort. Miller relied on his immense power and hand-eye coordination to offset the spinners with muscular hits across the line, and also played some lovely punches off the pacers. His century, with eight fours and fives sixes, helped get South Africa past 200 but Miller’s wicket, out to Cummins with valuable overs left in the innings, robbed the team of getting towards 240.
With 212 on the board, South Africa still had something to work with under lights on a tacky surface, but their start was woeful. In six overs, Warner and Head drove Australia to 60 for no loss as both cut and pulled with sheer aggression, very aware that early runs had to be scored. It was Warner’s first six, a monstrous pull off Kagiso Rabada, that really got the Kolkata fans going. And when in the sixth over two fours off Jansen from Head were followed by Warner’s second six, the writing was on the wall. In the next over, the sixth of the innings, Head hit a six and Warner swatted two more to take 21 off Rababa.
What such a powerful start did was rattle South Africa, while giving Australia room to negotiate the expected fall of wickets as the innings wore on. Markram was called on to bowl the seventh over and struck immediately with his part-time offspin as Warner, on 29, made room to cut and was bowled. Mitchell Marsh was out for zero soon after, driving Rabada on the rise only to see van der Dussen intercept his shot with a terrific catch.
However, two lives to Head in the span of two overs undid the double-strike. Head was first put down by Reeza Hendricks at deep point, then looked on as a thick edge off Tabraiz Shamsi evaded Klaasen at slip. Head eventually fell for 62 when he was beaten by a lovely first delivery from Keshav Maharaj that turned in and hit the stumps. The stage was thus set for Australia’s two middle-over nudgers, Smith and Marnus Labuschagne, to whittle away the target, but it did not materialize.
Labuschagne played a silly reverse-paddle and was out lbw to Shamsi and Glenn Maxwell’s shot against the same bowler should be added to video manuals about what not to attempt in cricket matches when teams are struggling. Smith was made to miss and hop around the crease as South Africa’s spinners found sharp turn, but there was another drop, this time Smith being put down by de Kock off Shamsi. Smith looked to have set himself off to finish the match in the company of Josh Inglis, until on 30, with 39 runs needed from just under 17 overs, he played a horrendous swipe across the line and fell to Gerald Coetzee.
Inglis hung around until the 40th over before a corker from Coetzee splayed his stumps, but this wicket had come too late. Cummins and Starc, who had earlier combined to start South Africa’s downfall, finished the job in steely manner.