By Kishan Vaghela
Although the T20 World Cup is still very much in its infancy, two major sides are yet to win it. South Africa have never reached a World Cup final, yet despite their often spineless displays in major tournaments, the calibre of players they possess makes a convincing argument for the voodoo to disappear once and for all. By contrast, Australia have won the 50-over World Cup a record five times, most recently last year on home soil. However, whilst the T20 crown has so far evaded them, their unquestionable balance always suggests that they are not far away from it. The sides are currently involved in a T20I series against each other in preparation for the World Cup, with the series level at 1-1 with one game to go in Cape Town on Wednesday. South Africa won the first game at Kingsmead, but Australia fought back in the second T20I in Johannesburg to secure a last-ball victory.
Faf du Plessis’ South Africa have looked extremely convincing so far in the build-up to the tournament, having recorded a three-wicket victory over ‘the Aussies’ at Kingsmead. David Miller was the standout batsman, hitting his first international fifty since February 2015 and best career T20I score to not only defeat Australia, but also, more crucially, to find form at just the right time. The Proteas’ top order have struggled, Quinton de Kock aside, and whilst their batting depth is admirable, the likes of Miller, Farhaan Behardien, David Wiese and Chris Morris should not be sharing the burden of rescuing their side on regular occasions.
Hashim Amla looked to be returning to form after handing over the Test captaincy to AB de Villiers, scoring 109 and 96 in the final Test match at Centurion, which preceded a T20I score of 69 not out in Johannesburg against the same opposition. Despite this, the 32-year-old may ultimately lose out in partnering de Villiers at the top of the order to his 23-year-old teammate de Kock, who although was rested for the T20I series against England, struck 138 not out and 135 in the ODI series against Eoin Morgan’s side and was impressive in the second T20I versus Australia.
AB de Villiers’ 360 degree hitting range is well renowned, and he will hopefully take his form of three centuries and one fifty in his last seven ODIs into the shortest format to add to the T20I score of 71 against England in February. Captain du Plessis is arguably South Africa’s most consistent T20 batsman, someone who is capable of playing both the anchoring role (or as close to it as possible in the shorter format) and assuming the responsibility of accelerating the run rate, shown by his innings of 79 in the second T20I. Undoubtedly, these two members, who together occupy the captaincy roles across all forms, will set the pace for the Proteas in the tournament.
Nevertheless, South Africa’s lethal bowling attack, which came to the fore in last year’s T20I series against India, is arguably the most threatening in the competition. Kagiso Rabada, the 20-year-old quick bowler, has been a revelation, and was the bowler who adapted best to the sub-continental conditions in the India series and will therefore be a threat this time around. With Dale Steyn, who returned to the side in the second T20I against Australia after a shoulder injury, alongside Morris, Wiese and Kyle Abbott, South Africa, along with their Australian counterparts, have the most variety in their seam attack.
However, in contrast to Steve Smith’s side, the Proteas also possess a spinner who has a knack of taking regularly wickets in the form of the exuberant Imran Tahir. The 36-year-old Pakistani-born leg-spinner has taken eight wickets in his last four T20Is, taking his total in the shortest format to 35 from 22 matches.
Unfortunately for du Plessis’ side, the form of all-rounder JP Duminy is of real concern, encapsulated in the first T20I against Australia, where he conceded three consecutive sixes and one four in the last over of the powerplay to Aaron Finch, before mistiming a shot to the same man having scored just five with the bat. Whilst Chris Morris has threatened to fulfil this role, South Africa’s lack of a substantial all-rounder could result in yet another tournament failure.
Australia’s squad is more notably settled than South Africa’s, but the selectors still have a few issues to tackle before their opening game against New Zealand in Dharamsala on 18th March. One announcement however that has already been made is that Steve Smith will replace Aaron Finch as T20 captain to become Australia’s skipper in all forms of the game.
With his focus fully on batting now, Finch will be eager to discover whether he will have a new opening partner, with David Warner most likely making the move down the order to number three or four, which has been the case in the first two T20Is against South Africa. One of the candidates to replace Warner is 29-year-old Usman Khawaja, whose outstanding displays in the Big Bash League (two hundreds in four innings with a 172.50 average and 163.50 strike rate) have put him in contention.
Khawaja’s competitor for the opening slot alongside Finch comes in the form of Shane Watson. Former Australian batsman Michael Hussey told Sky Sports that the 34-year-old all-rounder’s “clarity in his game” is making him “a dangerous proposition”, having worked with him in the latest edition of the Big Bash with Sydney Thunder.
In the middle order, newly-appointed captain Smith has had a largely flawless year with the bat in Test and ODI cricket, but having participated in just three T20Is since October 2014, the 26-year-old will quickly need to get to grips again with the shortest format of the game.
Mitchell Marsh and James Faulkner represent two of the finest limited overs all-rounders in world cricket currently. Both are power-hitters, along with Glenn Maxwell, who shared a record fourth-wicket stand of 161 with Warner in the second T20I in Johannesburg. Moreover, Marsh and Faulkner have terrific qualities with the ball, and therefore their ability to influence games will prove to a certain extent whether Australia have the credentials to win a tournament they have never won.
Watson and Faulkner’s experience with the Rajasthan Royals will significantly benefit the side in general, as will the plethora of change-ups in the latter’s arsenal as a ‘death bowler’. Those variations may be all the more crucial given the inexperience of Australia’s bowlers, an obvious downfall for the 50-over World Champions.
The loss of Mitchell Starc through injury is a massive blow for ‘The Aussies’, which has been compounded by Mitchell Johnson’s retirement. As two of the key figures in Australia’s victory in the 2015 World Cup, the extent to which they are successfully replaced is fundamental to their hopes.
Josh Hazlewood is another player who has impressed in the longer format, however Andrew Tye was unable to apply his ‘death bowling’ skills, which he had developed in the Big Bash, to the international level in the recent 3-0 home series loss to India.
Nevertheless, the lack of quality spin options is where the bowling attack ultimately lacks substance. Nathan Lyon and Cameron Boyce, the latter relatively impressive in the T20Is against India, have been omitted in favour of Ashton Agar, who has not featured in Australia’s limited overs team since last year’s tour of England, and Adam Zampa, the uncapped 23-year-old leg-spinner who has impressed over the last few Big Bash seasons with Sydney Thunder, Adelaide Strikers and Melbourne Stars.
Both these sides were semi-finalists in last year’s 50-over World Cup, with Australia obviously regaining their crown. However, both nations will be looking to induce the same vigour that took them to the latter stages last year, given that they are both aiming to secure this particular prize for the first time.
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