Big picture: Baggage handlers
Forget everything you think you know about form and fortune, and the fallacy that the best team will always win on the day. Embrace instead a scenario in which every twitch of South Africa’s muscle memory (because, let’s face it, this is all about them) will feel as though it is attached to invisible strings, dragging their efforts backwards through space and time … through 2015, through 2007, through 2003. Through 1999 and 1992 … and back into the formless void from whence all of their World Cup agonies first sprung.
Since 1992, no team has won a World Cup without eliminating them first – and even Pakistan’s group-stage victory that year proved to be a de facto quarter-final. Sri Lanka denied them in the 1996 final, before India and England dethroned them in 2011 and 2019 respectively. Come through this one and, notwithstanding India’s runaway form in the other side of the draw, South Africa will be entitled to believe that their name is on the trophy.
That is not to say that South Africa should be considered rank outsiders, far from it. Uniquely among Australia’s opponents across the entire history of ODI cricket, they boast a positive win-loss record (55 to 50), which includes 15 victories in their last 18 meetings and a group-stage thumping in Lucknow, only last month.
They’ve got form, they’ve got confidence … but they’ve also got history, as their opponents will be only too happy to remind them. Even South Africa’s happiest memories of Eden Gardens – from their redemptive tour in November 1991, when Clive Rice released doves into the Calcutta air to mark South Africa’s return from sporting isolation – seem to have been man-marked by Australian one-upmanship. Four years prior to that occasion, and almost to the day, Allan Border had been hoisted onto his team-mates’ shoulders and paraded across the same turf, after laying claim to the first of Australia’s five titles.
What South Africa would give for their first … instead, their barren cabinet is feeling all the more sparse right now, in light of the knockout magnificence that took place in Paris only last month. Since their own return to the international stage, South Africa’s rugby team has endured none of the angst that has stalked their cricketers – winning four World Cups in eight since victory at the first attempt in 1995 – and in holding their nerve across three consecutive one-point wins in this year’s quarter, semi and final, they proved with unhelpful clarity just what it takes to show bottle in the clutch moments.
At this point, it’s only polite to point out that there will, in fact, be two teams competing for progression to Sunday’s final in Ahmedabad, and such is Australia’s enduring quality on the world stage, it might not be sufficient for South Africa to simply vanquish their internal demons.
They carry an air of entitlement into this contest that is surely worth a hundred-run start, not to mention the sure knowledge that, in each of their two previous semi-final clashes, in 1999 and 2007, they marched past their bereft opponents and all the way to glory. As if they didn’t know it already, South Africa need to produce the game of their lives on Thursday, and then some. It may seem cruel, but those are the rules of this particular engagement. And they were written long before many of these players were born.
Australia WWWWW (last five completed matches, most recent first)
South Africa WLWWW
In the spotlight: Heinrich Klaasen and Adam Zampa
Team news: Labuschagne over Stoinis, SA wait on Bavuma
Neither Marnus Labuschagne nor Marcus Stoinis made it to the middle in Australia’s crushing victory over Bangladesh in their final group game, but only one of them will feature in Kolkata, given the inevitable return of the game-changing Maxwell. The explosive success of their batting in recent outings means that Labuschagne’s Test tempo should be trusted to do a job, and offer ballast to the middle order alongside Steve Smith, thereby freeing up the men around them to keep blazing as they’ve seen fit.
Australia (probable): 1 David Warner, 2 Travis Head, 3 Mitchell Marsh, 4 Steven Smith, 5 Marnus Labuschagne, 6 Josh Inglis (wk), 7 Glenn Maxwell, 8 Pat Cummins (capt), 9 Mitchell Starc, 10 Adam Zampa, 11 Josh Hazlewood
A decision will be made on Bavuma prior to the toss, as he sweats on a hamstring strain that has quietly overshadowed his team’s entire build-up. Reeza Hendricks is a very capable understudy, of course, and made 85 against England when Bavuma was once again absent, but the optics of the captain’s potential absence from a World Cup semi-final transcend the nitty-gritty of mere sporting matters. The team’s equilibrium is not helped by similar concerns surrounding Lungi Ngidi, who twice failed to complete his overs against India and Afghanistan while struggling with an ankle issue. He is expected to be passed fit, but could yet make way for Gerald Coetzee, with Tabraiz Shamsi seemingly inked in for what is expected to be a turning pitch, alongside Keshav Maharaj, whose ascension to the ICC’s No. 1 ranking is a pre-match vote of confidence. Andile Phehlukwayo is also in contention, potentially in place of Marco Jansen, whose devastating impact when on song has been offset by two notably off-days against Sri Lanka and India, in which he was twice taken for more than 90 runs.
South Africa (probable): 1 Quinton de Kock (wk), 2 Temba Bavuma (capt)/Reeza Hendricks, 3 Rassie van der Dussen, 4 Aiden Markram, 5 Heinrich Klaasen, 6 David Miller, 7 Marco Jansen/Andile Phehlukwayo, 8 Keshav Maharaj, 9 Kagiso Rabada, 10 Lungi Ngidi/Gerald Coetzee, 11 Tabraiz Shamsi
Pitch and conditions
Another black-soil surface at Eden Gardens promises turn for the spinners and sluggish but true bounce for the quicks, if the events of England’s group-stage win over Pakistan are anything to go by. The X-factor on this occasion could be the weather, with rain potentially entering the equation, depending on which app you use for your radar. There is, at least, a reserve day, so South Africa should be spared some of the permutation-based agonies that have chequered their World Cup history. “We’ll turn up expecting to play a 50-over match tomorrow,” Pat Cummins, Australia’s captain, said. “If that shifts on us, we can adjust as needed. It feels like it hasn’t really rained here for the last couple of months, so to see the weather looking like that for two days is not ideal.”
Stats and trivia
- Australia and South Africa have played each other on seven previous occasions at World Cups, and their recent is, on the face of it, an even split. Three wins each and one infamous tie, at Edgbaston in 1999.
“It’s hard to speak on their behalf, but I do know each World Cup, it does seem to be the story that South Africa haven’t quite achieved, obviously, what they set out to do.”
Australia’s captain Pat Cummins drops a subtle hint about his opponents’ record in knockout matches
“There’s a sense of calmness within the team and obviously the normal level of anxiety that you would expect of going into the game tomorrow. But I think we’ll take a lot of confidence with our performances up until this point. But yeah, I don’t think I’ll be going around giving guys hugs.”
Temba Bavuma, South Africa’s captain, is keeping the emotions in check ahead of the big match
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket