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The South Africa cricket team have been woeful at key stages in ICC tournaments like they were in Colombo today. Ishara S Kodikara / AFP
The South Africa cricket team have been woeful at key stages in ICC tournaments like they were in Colombo today. Ishara S Kodikara / AFP

The Proteas' puzzle

South Africa's inexplicable debacles in ICC tournaments continue.

Australia came into this tournament as the ninth-best side in the world, at least if you went by the ICC's dubious Twenty20 ranking system. South Africa were among the pre-tournament favourites, a team with many strengths and seemingly few weaknesses.

When it comes to global tournaments though, these two sides are a study in contrasts. On the big stage, Australia invariably find an extra gear, that little extra quality that sets them apart from everyone else. South Africa, otherwise so formidable, also find another gear. Sadly for them, it is usually been reverse.

No team comes close to Australia when you analyse performances in the big matches. At the 1999 World Cup in England, they lost their first two games, to New Zealand and Pakistan. With elimination looming, they went on a winning streak interrupted only by the epic match with South Africa in the semi-final at Edgbaston. Pakistan were torn apart in the final.

Eight years later, they went into a World Cup in the Caribbean having been blanked in a one-day series in New Zealand. The empire was crumbling, said some. Six weeks and 11 consecutive wins later, Australia were celebrating a third successive World Cup.

South Africa's misfortunes date back to 1992, and the infamous rain rule that left them needing 22 off one ball in the semi-final against England.

There was much sympathy for their predicament, but they did not really deserve any. Their over-rate had been so dismal England were able to receive only 45 overs.

In 1996, the team management bizarrely decidedly to rest Allan Donald, their best bowler, for the quarter-final against the West Indies. Brian Lara scored a hundred, and South Africa were out.

Edgbaston heart-break followed, before a failure to read the Duckworth-Lewis charts properly led to their exit on home soil in the 2003 World Cup.

Four years later, at the inaugural World Twenty20, South Africa needed only to avoid a heavy defeat against India in the Super Eights to make the semi-final. But with several batsmen torn between whether to go for the main target or the one that would ensure qualification, they stumbled, and a tigerish Indian effort in the field pushed them through the trap door.

In 2009, they were in imperious form until the semi-final. They did little wrong there, but had no answer to an inspired Shahid Afridi, who belted 51 from 34 balls and then took two for 16 as Pakistan edged home by seven runs.

If South Africa do exit this competition early, it is not the defeat against Australia that they will look back on with great regret.

Against Pakistan, they had the game in the bag at 76 for seven. Johan Botha and JP Duminy had four overs left between them, having bowled tightly and taken wickets earlier. Instead of throwing one of them the ball, though, AB de Villiers chose to go with Albie Morkel. In helpful conditions, Morkel can occasionally trouble batsmen. On flat subcontinent pitches, he has seldom been a threat, even in the Indian Premier League. Umar Gul gave him a pasting, and the complexion of the match changed. On a surface where slow bowlers had dominated, De Villiers's decision was a mind-boggling call.

After Karachi 1996 and Durban 2003, however, we have come to expect such folly from South Africa.

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