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Four days after AB de Villiers questioned whether South Africa had an inflated sense of self after they lost a second group game, the captain has u-turned on that sentiment. Instead of asking if his men are as good as they think they are, de Villiers has rubber-stamped his initial analysis that his team are made of champion material.
“I 100% believe we are the best team in the tournament here,” de Villiers said. “Those two losses in the group stage did hurt us a bit but we are past that now. We know where we could have won those games and we weren’t that far off. We know we are very close… three games away from taking that World Cup home. The most important game is tomorrow but we know we are not far off so it’s important to be positive and still believe we are the best.”
De Villiers had expressed similar strong feelings about South Africa after they lost 1-4 in Australia last November on a recce trip for this tournament. Despite the margin of defeat, de Villiers called his team “the better side” and was pleased that they remained competitive throughout that series.
Two of the five games were decided in the final and penultimate overs, both times with South Africa batting first. That put the spotlight on their death bowling – an area most teams have struggled with at this tournament – rather than chasing problems, which appear to have reared their head again, although de Villiers denied that.
“It’s not an issue. I believe we can chase down any total,” he said. “There is no special strategy. You have to do the basics well. We’ve done it in the last year a few times under pressure. We didn’t get it right the last couple of chases and that’s alright. I am still confident in the batting unit. I believe there are a few guys due for big runs and it’s going to happen soon at the right time.”
Quinton de Kock, who has got into double figures only once in the tournament, is one of the players de Villiers was referring to but his lack of form should be less of a concern than overall shot selection under pressure. Both de Villiers and JP Duminy were dismissed trying to clear the boundary against Pakistan, even though the required run-rate was under control, but big-hitting seems to be something South Africa are intent on getting right. Vernon Philander, who is on track to play after a three-match absence with a hamstring strain, was practising it with such gusto, he broke a window at the New Zealand cricket museum at the Basin Reserve.
While that approach could help them at the Cake Tin, and if they return to New Zealand to contest a semi-final, South Africa may want to be cautioned by Michael Clarke. After Australia’s overly aggressive approach saw them collapse against New Zealand, Clarke pointed to a deficiency in proper preparation and some in the South African camp have hinted at the same.
On Tuesday, Morne Morkel suggested South Africa “should have maybe worked on facing new balls a little bit more” to properly prepare for Pakistan at Eden Park but de Villiers did not think that played a role in the collapse. “It’s an individual thing. I can’t tell certain senior players what to do and what not to do in their preparation. We are each very particular about what we do and how we prepare,” he said. “I’ve got a certain way. I don’t face a lot of new balls but I still believe in my skill to bat on the day. I don’t go into net sessions and face new balls all the time. I focus on what I believe will get me into the best space for the game.”
The pre-match mindset was another talking point after South Africa’s defeat to Pakistan, especially after de Villiers revealed he did not feel an “electric vibe” in the team that day. Now, he said the “energy is back,” and hoped it stays but maybe only for the UAE game before it gets reined in for the knockouts.
“As a captain you sometimes get a feel going into a game in the warm-up. Sometimes, guys are over-intense, or guys need space or guys are too relaxed and those things change every single game we play and that’s what I was referring to,” de Villiers said. “The intensity will have to be pulled back if we do make the quarters and the semis because the guys could get over-eager again. You’ve got to get that balance right at tournaments like this.”
South Africa’s immediate focus though, is the balance of the team. Their preference for seven specialist batsmen has left them making up a fifth bowler from part-timers but playing five frontline bowlers will leave the line-up one short. What to do?
“That’s the difficult decision most teams have to make at this World Cup – an extra batter or an extra bowler. The last few games we have gone for the extra batter, against India we went for the extra bowler. Both times we lost so it’s a difficult one.”
South Africa will try to solve the conundrum against the UAE but de Villiers promised they will be careful not to “mess around too much with your best possible XI” because they want to finish the group strongly to challenge for the ultimate prize.
“If you look at the standings, if we win the last game we will be in a good position to go into the quarters with a lot of confidence. We would have liked to win the two big games against India and Pakistan but it didn’t happen that way and there’s no point sulking now,” de Villiers said. “It’s a very important stage of our World Cup now. It’s important to be confident and I still want the boys to believe we are the best, which we are. We are going to go into tomorrow’s game with that attitude.”