So the fishbone of fate lodges once more in the throat of South African cricket. I made it through to the early overs of the South African innings, around 2 am New Zealand time, propping the eyelids open long enough to see Hashim Amla out unluckily, caught by Vettori at slip (yes, at slip) off Brendon McCullum's boot.
I awoke a couple of hours later as Jacob Oram took an athletic catch on the mid-wicket boundary to dismiss Jacques Kallis (the feline abilty to wake just as something interesting is about to take place is something that you evolve when you have watched as much cricket as I have; happens all the time). Even then, surely not even South Africa could mangle this one, not with only 114 needed from 25 overs with seven wickets left.
But they could, and Mirpur becomes the next in the comi-tragic sequence that began in the rain at Sydney in 1992 (I watched that one in the Hammond Room at the County Ground in Bristol), and continued thus: Karachi in 1996 where seven wickets fell for 59; Allan Donald forgetting to run at Edgbaston in 1999; the failure to read a Duckworth-Lewis table properly at Durban in 2003; and gutless batting in St Lucia in 2007.
Today's debacle most closely resembled that at Karachi. Kallis' was the first of six wickets to fall for 38. No getting back from there.
Public acts of penance should be performed in the streets of Wellington by those who booed Jake Oram during the ODI against Pakistan at the Cake Tin in January. He has vindicated the selectors, who picked him because, episode of Casualty in human form though he is, he is one of the few players who can turn a game in the later stages of the World Cup, and that's what he did in Mirpur with four for 39 and two catches.
The influence of John Wright, the recently appointed coach, was apparent earlier in the day as New Zealand struggled to 221, the keystone partnership one of 114 between Ryder and Taylor. Both were subdued, suppressing their natural aggression to a large extent, having heeded Wright's call for patience. This was vital on a pitch which did not appreciate batsmen taking liberties. It resulted in a total that, though not what was hoped-for, was at least something. Kane Williamson's bright unbeaten 38 should also be noted. What a fine signing he is for Gloucestershire.
It was a good day for New Zealand's leadership altogether. Vettori handled his attack outstandingly, despite a gammy knee (hence the fielding at slip). He kept the pressure up well, and was prepared to keep effective bowlers going. Since one-day cricket began, captains have been too inclined to take bowlers off when they are at their most dangerous so that they have overs saved for later in the innings. Vettori was prepared to risk key bowlers not having overs left at the death, and it paid off handsomely.
As for South Africa...well, if they transferred the intelligence levels shown in the second half of their innings to everyday life, they wouldn't be safe crossing the road on their own. There were silly shots and poor decisions. The batting powerplay was a case in point. New Zealand rightly ignored their powerplay until the end of the innings, correctly diagnosing that it in the prevailing conditions the risk of losing wickets was greater than the opportunity to increase the scoring rate. South Africa, on the other hand, blundered into their powerplay when the eighth wicket fell, making it more difficult for Morne Morkel to score, with frustration the result.
This match provided the tension that the tournament has been lacking so far, as did the India v Australia game. There were some good contests earlier on (mostly involving England), but none that were must-win for both teams. The difference that makes showed in the eyes of Ricky Ponting on Wednesday and the later South African batsmen on Friday.
New Zealand have issues with World Cup semi-finals, having played in five, but in no finals.We are hoping that the old country comes through against Sri Lanka in the last quarter-final, as we reckon they would provide the lesser obstacle to further progress.
Update: some hope. It is hard to foresee an improvement by England in ODIs while 50-over cricket is not part of the domestic programme.