What a damp squib the two Champions Trophy semifinals turned out to be! On their showing in the group stages South Africa and Sri Lanka were expected to give some fight to England and India even if the latter teams were the favourites. But the one sided contests were disappointing to say the least.
Of the two, South Africa provided the greater let down so much so that Gary Kirsten had to say the infamous word that has been associated with South African cricket for about two decades. "Yes, we did choke in the game," said the crestfallen coach.
Of particular concern is the fact that South Africa have faltered time and again on the big stage or in a very important match. In every World Cup from 1992 to 2011 there are instances of South Africa having choked after playing themselves in a position to win or even win comfortably. The other manner of choking is of course losing to unfancied teams like going down to Zimbabwe in 1999 and Bangladesh eight years later.
Of course there was also that infamous miscalculation with regard to Duckworth/Lewis in their own backyard in 2003. More than once they have been the favourites going into the second stage after an admirable showing in the group stage only to falter yet again.
In the Champions Trophy their most infamous instance of choking was against India at Colombo in 2002. Replying to India’s 261 for nine, South Africa were 192 for one in 38 overs. It is hard to see any team losing from that position and yet South Africa incredibly went down by ten runs.
Now and then, South Africa give the impression that they have shrugged off the unwanted tag like that memorable day in March 2006 at Johannesburg when they scored an incredibly famous win over Australia chasing down 434 with one ball and one wicket to spare. Or even recently when they have risen to No 1 in the ICC Test rankings.
But the problem with South Africa is that you never know when they will choke and that is why they have never won the World Cup in either the Fifty50 or Twenty20 formats – and this despite having some of the leading players in world cricket over the years.
Sri Lanka’s pathetic batting of course gave them no chance of upsetting in-form India. In Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene they have two of the heaviest run-getters in ODI history but to be candid the Indian seam bowlers bowled admirably tying the Lankan batsmen in knots and giving them no room to play any shots.
They were also handicapped by the injury to Tillekeratne Dilshan though it is a moot point whether he would have made a major contribution even if fully fit given his recent lack of form and the commendable manner in which the Indian seam trio went about their work.
For the two victors there was much to savour. The Indians, as I said, can take much heart from the bowling of Ishant Sharma, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Umesh Yadav. For that matter, the two spinners didn’t do badly either. Little need be said about the batting which is the team’s forte. In fact so good has been the top order that the middle order has barely been exposed and this could be a vital factor should the England bowlers make early strikes in the title clash.
Indeed there is little doubt that even with a solid batting line-up, the bowling is England’s strength. With Steve Finn replacing Tim Bresnan, the bowling is even stronger. James Anderson has fully lived up to his reputation as the pace spearhead and Stuart Broad is getting better with every outing.
James Treadwell has risen to the occasion in the absence of Graeme Swann though of course either spinner may not find rewards that easy against the formidable Indian batting. Also England’s one weakness is the lack of a fifth bowler and the Indians can be expected to feast upon the likes of Joe Root and Ravi Bopara. But then the Indian bowlers will come up against batting that is stronger than what they came up against in the semifinal.
Much has been said and written about the conservative approach of Alastair Cook, Ian Bell and Jonathon Trott and whether this is outdated in the present game. The point is that England’s batting has traditionally been solid rather than spectacular – someone like Kevin Pietersen is an exception - and the task before the three is to lay a foundation for Root, Bopara, Jos Buttler and Eoin Morgan to reap the rewards in the later overs. It is another matter that Buttler and Morgan have found runs hard to come by.
There is every prospect that the title clash will be a close one and will give a fitting end to the final edition of the Champions Trophy. England of course have the added incentive of never winning the tournament while India will hope to regain the trophy it shared with Sri Lanka in 2002.