“YES, THERE’S goosebumps in my arms here while you are speaking. You are speaking good things.” David Miller is not exaggerating. He’s actually looking at and stroking his right forearm as he tells you this. The topic is one that is familiar to every Protean who’s been part of a World Cup squad in the last 15 years, or maybe every South African who has anything to do with cricket. Why do they fall at the final hurdle in these big events despite coming in with a lofty rating? (Full Coverage|| Fixtures||Photos)
Miller’s just been told that considering his batting position and his finishing prowess, he might well find himself in a position in the World T20 to once and for all bash the monkey off his nation’s back and ensure they return home a day after the final with a tag of champions.
And he likes the sound of it. He likes it a lot. The 26-year-old has been there too, on two occasions. He was there at Dhaka when Virat Kohli led India to a comprehensive win in the 2014 World T20 semifinals, and Miller scored a valiant 18-ball 49 against the Kiwis at Eden Park last year when Grant Elliott broke millions of hearts in his country of birth. The left-handed power-hitter also spoke about the fear of failure that previous South African teams might have succumbed to and how he feels that this younger outfit has moved on from the past.
“Hopefully, I can be part of changing something. I thought we should have won the semifinal. But when you look back, could have, should have, would have doesn’t win you the World Cup,” he said upon his team’s arrival in India last week.
A week later, South Africa are preparing for their tournament opener against a shaken England. The English did not have a practice session on Thursday. Maybe it was a good thing. It’s likely they would have still witnessed illusionary sights of the white ball flying into orbit. Like they have done so often in the past, the South Africans have started their build-up in perfect fashion, beating hosts India in a tense finish during their warm-up match last Saturday.
A well-rounded team
Once again you look at their squad, and there is hardly a bone to pick. There’s a battle for slots in the top-order, the middle-order that is stocked with experience and possesses both power and nous, and the bowling attack is seasoned and has more exposure in India than any of the other teams from outside the subcontinent. Plus they have AB de Villiers, who has scored awe-inspiring centuries in his two previous outings at Wankhede — an IPL century against Mumbai Indians and that bltizkrieg against India in the ODI five months ago. Dale Steyn, too, has always enjoyed the swing under lights at this venue, and it’s only here really where he’s managed to bully batsmen in the IPL.
To boot, apart from the hosts, South Africa has played the most number of T20s in the lead-up to the tournament with what’s been a rather settled core outfit. And it was only recently that they routed an England outfit that had till then held sway in the other formats.
But sporting logic and South Africa’s fortunes in world events haven’t always gone hand-in-hand. They have been the bookmakers’ biggest nightmare. To the extent that following the Kiwis’ win over India in Nagpur, a local radio jockey presented a tongue-in-cheek argument that you couldnt’ debate. “All South Africa and New Zealand do is upset the apple-cart. Title toh kabhi nahi jeetenge (Not like they’ll ever win a title),” he said.
Teams like New Zealand and Sri Lanka have regularly faltered in the business end of major tournaments, but unlike the South Africans, they’ve gotten there as wildcards and not favourites. Whether they like it or not, Faf du Plessis & Co will have to contend with being front-runners again, despite being a part of a group with two other former winners, including England.
When you look up and down the South African squads that have played in the World T20s previously, it’s difficult to see where they could have gone wrong. Unlike the English, they can’t complain about being naive in this format either. Fewer South Africans miss out on an IPL ticket than even the Australians.
If there is a chink then it could be the lower-order. Historically, South Africa’s greatest strengths in limited-overs cricket has been the depth in their batting. While Morris has shown of late that he’s getting into Klusener-esque form in terms of gunning down improbable run-chases, the Proteas you feel will still feel uncomfortable at the thought of leaving the finishing duties for the tall, angular former Chennai Super Kings (CSK) all-rounder. David Wiese has fit in nicely too at No.7 — which he often shares with franchise teammate Morris — but still you can see opposition teams looking at it as an opening.
It only makes the role of Miller and JP Duminy that much more important. Unlike Miller, Duminy has seen a lot more disappointments, and with the next World Cup—the 50-over version that is—still three years away, he like the other members in the 30+ age category in this team will want to get rid of the proverbial monkey this time itself. Unlike Miller, Duminy himself volunteered to use the term when asked about his team’s long-standing ‘so near yet so far’ conundrum.
“Chokers is the term you want to mention? From a team point of view, it’s off our backs. The reason I say that is the last two ICC events, we played formidable games and we were beaten by a better team. From a public perspective, that monkey’s never going to be off the back till we actually win a World Cup,” he said.
And the whole of South Africa will be hoping that Miller will be getting goosebumps come April 3 not just by hearing about ‘good things’ but actually having achieved some.