I will start this column by stating the facts: South Africa has never lost to India in an ICC Cricket World Cup fixture. I will also qualify that statement by adding these two teams have only played each other three times in ICC’s pinnacle tournament and all three games have been extremely tight with South Africa chasing down the target with only a few balls to spare on each occasion. These two teams seem to have a knack of producing memorable games when they meet in ICC Cricket World Cups. Adelaide (1992), Hove (1999) and Nagpur (2011) were all defining games within the context of the respective ICC Cricket World Cups and I don’t foresee Melbourne 2015 being any different.
The MCG is a cauldron of 97 000 passionate cricket fans. The atmosphere and sheer size of the ground can make it an overwhelming prospect. The added element of an ICC Cricket World Cup fixture will only increase the tension and pre-match nerves, hence, I believe that being able to settle down and finding a rhythm quickly will go a long way to deciding the outcome of the game.
There have been three One-Day Internationals played at the MCG, thus far in the 2014/2015 season and all have been fairly high-scoring affairs. I believe this trend will continue on Sunday. Since 2013, India has won more One-Day Internationals when chasing than any other team, hence it will back itself to chase down anything. Its talismans, MS Dhoni and Virat Kholi, will instill this belief in it.
Within its top-order constituents of Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma and Kohli, India has three of the most prolific batsmen in One-Day Internationals over the past couple of years. A lot has been made of the capabilities of India’s middle-order and if it is going to chase down a large total on Sunday, then much will fall on the shoulders of Suresh Raina, Ravindra Jadeja, Ajinkya Rahane and Dhoni. Raina seems to be finding form with the bat at the right time with two consecutive scores of 70 plus.
Jadeja has a fair average and healthy strike-rate but has historically fared poorly on quicker tracks and has been struggling for form coming into the tournament. Rahane may still be trying to figure out his role in the batting line-up. Normally an opener, in his 47 One-Day Internationals the only time he has batted below position four was on Sunday against Pakistan when he came in at number seven.
While Dhoni is currently going through a lean patch, I am hesitant to read too much into this as he has proved his match-winning and finishing abilities time and time again over the past 11 years. The Proteas will know the importance of striking up front early so not to allow the top three to set a platform for the middle-order. Ultimately, I believe the match will be a contest between the Proteas bowling attack and the India batting line-up.
It is for this reason that I would be tempted to play Wayne Parnell ahead of Farhaan Berhardien in this particular fixture. While the Indians have become more adept at playing fast, short-pitched bowling and have been honing their skills on Australian pitches for past three months, I still believe this is an area where the Proteas can exploit them. Hence, the reason I would look to play the extra fast bowler in Parnell which will also allow him to bowl at their left-handers (Dhawan, Raina and Jadeja).
There will be a school of thought that believes the team requires an extra batsman as a contingency measure, but I feel David Miller and JP Duminy allayed those fears on Sunday. The India bowling attack is currently solid if not spectacular. Mohammad Shami and Mohit Sharma bowled steadily on Sunday and it will be important not to allow either of Ravichandaran Ashwin or Jadeja settle into a rhythm.
Dhoni will rotate his bowlers astutely and will certainly not be subscribe to the conventional in the field. Nevertheless, South Africa’s top six will back themselves to score the bulk of the runs be it setting or chasing. History and the record books will show that the Proteas only need to ensure they bat second to emerge victorious.
However, the script in these fixtures has never been that simple and I believe Sunday will be no different.