South Africa unburdened by T20 World Cup expectations

By: AFP      Published: 10:03 AM, 16 Oct, 2021
South Africa unburdened by T20 World Cup expectations
File photo.

South Africa, perennial under-achievers in International Cricket Council events, will go into the T20 World Cup unburdened by high expectations.

The team is short on big names and big-time experience, with seven of their squad making their debuts in a world event.

"There's not much expectation," admits captain Temba Bavuma, himself a World Cup debutant.

However, he quickly adds that he is talking about external perceptions rather than in the team room where, he says "we have a certain level of expectation".

Bavuma says there is a quiet confidence in a team notably missing T20 stars such as AB de Villiers, who confirmed his retirement from international cricket earlier in the year, and former captain Faf du Plessis, who was available but not selected.

"We have had some positive results which are good for our confidence," said Bavuma. "We have done our work as a collective."

Those good results include a current streak of a South African record-equalling seven successive T20 international wins, encompassing series victories against T20 World Cup champions West Indies, Ireland and Sri Lanka – all achieved away from home.

Unusually, South Africa's success has been built on accurate spin bowling, a major departure for a country long known for its battery of fast bowlers, but likely to be positive on the slow pitches expected in the United Arab Emirates.

South Africa started each match in Sri Lanka in September with three slow left-arm bowlers -– Tabraiz Shamsi, Bjorn Fortuin and Keshav Maharaj -– and also made use of the right-arm off-spin of top-order batsman Aiden Markram. 

The slow men collectively claimed 16 of the 22 Sri Lankan wickets that fell to bowlers.

South Africa's batting, though, shapes up as a problem with the form of Quinton de Kock seemingly key to the side's fortunes.

De Kock's form dipped during an unsuccessful stint as captain in all three international formats, leading him to take a "mental health break" after a disappointing tour of Pakistan in January and February.

But the left-handed opener has been back to his best since coming back without the burden of captaincy. 

His total of 455 runs over the past three series is 196 more than the next highest-scorer, fellow opener Reeza Hendricks.

Seven of South Africa's nine wins in the past three series have come after batting first and posting relatively modest totals, ranging from 159 to 189, with the latter total coming against lowly-ranked Ireland.

Bavuma will be hoping to break a long-running history of failure at ICC events since the country won the ICC Knock-Out Trophy, forerunner of the Champions Trophy, in 1998.

Since then they have played in 19 tournaments, reaching the semi-finals nine times without going on to a final.

South Africa's solitary recent success was at Under-19 level when Markram led a side which included fast bowler Kagiso Rabada to victory in the 2014 junior event, also in the United Arab Emirates.

"At the time there wasn't a lot of media exposure. There was a lot less pressure on the players," said Markram, who believes the current side are mentally equipped to deal with pressure. 

"We're not bringing too much baggage into this World Cup. Everyone here is pretty free-spirited."

Low public expectations could work in the favour of Bavuma's team – but the pressure will be ramped up if South Africa reach the knock-out stage.

Sri Lanka embark on World Cup road to redemption

Sri Lankan legend Aravinda de Silva admits there have been "issues with discipline" but the country which won the T20 World Cup seven years ago is on the way back, he says.

Also unable to shrug off corruption scandals, Sri Lanka fell outside the top eight when qualifying was decided for the upcoming World Cup, condemning them to the preliminaries against outsiders such as the Netherlands, Ireland and Namibia.

But as part of an overhaul, de Silva, vice captain of the side that won the 50-over World Cup in 1996, was brought in to head Sri Lanka's cricket committee.

Another legend, Mahela Jayawardene, a member of the side that triumphed at the T20 World Cup in 2014, has been drafted in to mentor the team competing in the United Arab Emirates and Oman -- to give "confidence and support".

On the field, all-rounder Dasun Shanaka is the latest to take on the captain's role to bring order.

"I think people have to understand it's a very young side," de Silva told AFP ahead of Sri Lanka's opening World Cup fixture, against Namibia on Monday. Shanaka "has done well up to now", he added.

"So I guess we need to back these guys. I think there were certain issues with discipline and things like that.

"And the biggest issue is I think the cricketer should be allowed to play cricket; and the administers should look at and focus on their administrative stuff."

Sri Lanka is overhauling the domestic cricket structure to produce players for the national team, the 55-year-old said.

"If you look at the Sri Lanka team, they've got talent, but maybe some of the positions, the way they approach the game in the batting lineup, could be changed to be that much more efficient and effective.

"Those kinds of thinking comes through experience and also understanding the game very well." 

According to de Silva, most coaches and selectors do not have enough T20 experience, but Jayawardene has been a top player and head coach for Mumbai Indians in the Indian Premier League.

"We wanted him to spend some time and talk about the situations, how to handle those situations. These young boys need to understand all those and how they should be approached in a certain situation."

- 'Never win another World Cup' -

De Silva and former Australian star Tom Moody introduced new performance-based contracts for players that were initially rejected.

Angelo Mathews, whose annual contract was reduced by $50,000 a year and withdrew from national duty in July for "personal reasons", has returned to the squad -- though not for the World Cup.

The off-field problems have become legend.

Kusal Mendis, opener Danushka Gunathilaka and wicketkeeper Niroshan Dickwella were banned for a year for breaching the team's coronavirus bubble in England in July.

Of their 12 T20 matches this year, Sri Lanka have won three and lost nine. They suffered series whitewashes against England and South Africa, sparking outrage among fans.

However, they won a series 2-1 against a second-string Indian team in August to win back some respect in the cricket-crazy nation of 21 million people.

Doubts remain though -- former sports minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage declared this month that Sri Lanka "will never be able to win another World Cup" until it ends match-fixing.

He said that it was the game's administrators, not the players, at the heart of the rot.

Bangladesh vow not to be haunted by miserable record

Bangladesh's star all-rounder Shakib Al-Hasan believes that series wins against Australia, New Zealand and Zimbabwe will boost their chances at the T20 World Cup despite a record which shows just one victory at the tournament since 2007.

Bangladesh will have to take part in the qualifying round at the 2021 event starting in the United Arab Emirates and Oman on Sunday.

But Shakib believes the recent wins in Dhaka have toughened the side at the right time.

"I think we have a good chance in the World Cup. We had a good preparation. The big reason for this is that we won those three series," said Shakib.

"When a team keeps winning, it builds a winning mentality, it takes confidence to a new level."

The Tigers go into qualifying against Scotland, Oman and Papua New Guinea seeking one of two places to take part in the main Super 12 competition.

Now sixth in the ICC Twenty20 rankings, they are among the favourites to get through.

- T20 struggle -

The team's limited over fortunes have been boosted by the good form of fast bowler Mustafizur Rahman -- a standout performer at the Indian Premier League with Rajasthan Royals.

Bangladesh have also discovered a new generation of batters in Mohammad Naim, Liton Das, Soumya Sarkar and Mushfiqur Rahim to back captain Mahmudullah Riyad.

But the wins against Australia and New Zealand were against weakened touring sides on slow pitches that perfectly suited Bangladesh's game. 

And not everyone is optimistic about Bangladesh's improved showing having an effect at the World Cup.

"We have not won a game in the main round since 2007. I can only hope that this situation will change this time," former captain Mohammad Ashraful told AFP. 

"I am expecting two wins against Afghanistan and Ireland (if they qualify). Anything more than this will be a big achievement," he said.

Ashraful, man of the match in Bangladesh's World Cup win over West Indies in 2007, played down the importance of the wins over Australia (4-1) and New Zealand (3-2).

"Australia and New Zealand sent weak teams, none had their main batsmen, yet we also lost matches to them," he said.

"We got the wins but no batsman scored a hundred or a bowler got five wickets.

"A win always gives you confidence. But I did not see any individual performance. The bowlers did well but I don't think we will get this kind of wicket in the UAE."

Bangladesh beat Australia, who were without captain Aaron Finch and other key players, 4-1 in August before posting a 3-2 win against New Zealand next month. 

New Zealand had none of their World Cup players.

Ashrafaul is among those who remember how Bangladesh started with a bang in T20 internationals, winning three of their first four games before getting stuck in the bottom half of the rankings.

Bangladesh's passionate fans want to see the much-loved Shakib and his teammates turn words into actions at this World Cup.