As Pat Cummins and Mitchell Starc hugged each other in relief, the pair’s tail-end nous having booked a showdown with India in Sunday’s World Cup final, it was hard not to feel for the latest set of South Africans to fall at the penultimate hurdle.
This three-wicket victory for Australia was deserving of the chance to take on the undefeated hosts at Ahmedabad’s Modi mega-bowl. Over the course of two innings on a capricious, used pitch, Cummins and his men made the bulk of the running, rolling their opponents for 212 with the ball and reeling in the target with 16 balls to spare.
But as the final scoreline suggests, there were stumbles along the way in this soupy, cyclonic day-nighter. A crowd of 48,000 locals – plus a sprinkling of travelling fans – witnessed a gripping knockout contest; the kind that will live long in the memory, even if Temba Bavuma and his heartbroken players may wish to banish it from theirs.
And this was heartbreak for the Proteas: Australia struck at the outset before a masterful century from the muscular David Miller offered a sniff. Arriving at 24 for four in the 12th over of the match, Miller’s 101 from 118 balls gave his bowlers something to work with and the rest of us something to get nostalgic about. After all, 213 was the score both sides made during that famous tied semi-final at Edgbaston in 1999.
Yet despite rallying with the ball, overcoming the flashing blades of Travis Head, 62 from 48 balls, and David Warner, 29 from 18, then puncturing five further holes in the Australian hull through Tabraiz Shamsi’s wrist-spin and the pace of Gerald Coetzee, this became South Africa’s seventh exit at the semi-final stage across ODI and T20 World Cups.
This inevitably invited the age-old question about choking, their head coach, Rob Walter, gruffly pushing back after the defeat. “For me, a choke is losing a game you’re in a position to win,” Walter told the post-match press conference. “We were behind the eight-ball from the word go. It wasn’t remotely close to a choke.”
If anything it felt like experience told on the day, Australia boasting five World Cup champions from the class of 2015. Among them was Starc, a quiet campaign by his lofty standards having earlier burst into life with standout figures of three for 34. Starc was also one of the coolest heads at the end, chiselling off the final 20 runs alongside his captain.
South Africa had simply been unable to wriggle free from a canary yellow cage at the outset after Bavuma, shrugging off his recent hamstring strain, won the toss. Both captains wanted to bat given the recycled pitch but on a muggy overcast afternoon – the fringes of a weather system in the Bay of Bengal – clouds soon engulfed the Proteas.
Despite two white Kookaburra balls and the coloured clothing, this was practically a Test-match battle out in the middle as Starc and Josh Hazlewood vaporised the top four and sent down 61 dot balls – the equivalent of 10 maidens. It took a previously aggressive South Africa side 52 balls to hit their first boundary, by which time Bavuma, Quinton de Kock, Rassie van der Dussen and Aiden Markram had departed.
Among this stranglehold was a sparkling, back-pedalling catch from Cummins which sent De Kock on his way. It meant two middle order power-hitters in Miller and Heinrich Klaasen having to rebuild stoically, stringing together a stand of 84 runs either side of 40 minutes of rain before pushing back with some lusty blows off the out-of-sorts Adam Zampa.
Cummins noted the turn, however, and calling on Head’s part-time tweakers for the 31st over proved a masterstroke. Klaasen was bowled for 44 playing back to one, while a grim day for Marco Jansen began when he was lbw first ball. South Africa were back in the mire at 119 for six and though no hat-trick followed, a beaming smile sat under Head’s trucker moustache.
Kudos to Miller for keeping the contest alive, finding support from Coetzee at No 8 and bringing up his century by launching Cummins for a fifth six. Regrets lingered for the pair, however, Coetzee walking for a caught behind off Cummins on 19 despite the bouncer brushing his forearm and Miller falling the ball after his milestone in the 48th over.
They weren’t alone. After Warner and Head took huge bites out of the target, South Africa struck back. And, aside from a spellbinding catch at cover from Van der Dussen to remove Mitch Marsh off Kagiso Rabada, it was the spinners causing the problems. But five tough catches went down and two reviews were burned to undermine South Africa’s cause.
Not that the towel was ever thrown in. Shamsi wiped out Marnus Labuschagne and Glenn Maxwell to make it 137 for five, while Coetzee refused to bow down, his removals of Steve Smith for 30 and the Yorkshire-born Josh Inglis for 28 inducing some late panic.
But Starc and Cummins had ice in their veins to knock off the last 20 runs, securing an eighth men’s 50-over World Cup final for Australia and the chance to claim the title for the sixth time. For South Africa, simply getting there remains the problem.