If the quarter-finals were easy to call (even we got all four right), then the semi-finals are anything but. One thing is for certain, there will be a debutant finalist this year; neither New Zealand nor South Africa has ever gone beyond the semi-final stage. A record will be ended.
The Proteas have had a lengthy break since their last game, the first quarter-final against Sri Lanka in which they cruised to victory by nine wickets. Quinton de Kock, a man who was under increasing pressure at the top of the order, finally arrived at this World Cup, though, guiding his side home with an unbeaten 78.
With the ease of the victory over Sri Lanka and a similarly straightforward task against the UAE on 12 March, it means that South Africa haven’t really been tested since their 7 March defeat to Pakistan just over two weeks ago.
South Africa have also been beaten twice, by Pakistan and India. They haven’t had any nip-and-tuck games; they have either battered the opposition or lost. They may well have ended their bizarre record of never having won a World Cup knock-out game, but the ‘chokers’ tag will not be consigned to the scrap heap just yet. When the chips are down, we still don’t know how this South African side will stack up.
Will their middle order be able to dig them out of a hole, AB de Villiers aside? Is their tail too long? Should Vernon Philander come back in for Kyle Abbott? Have they got a fifth bowler that will prove sufficiently challenging to New Zealand?
It may well be the semi-finals, but there are still a lot of unanswered questions about South Africa. They will be answered, one way or another, today.
By contrast, New Zealand have won every game, come through the tightest game of the tournament against Australia and look a well-oiled machine. Like South Africa, however, there is a ‘chokers’ tag looming large over the Black Caps. They have played in six World Cup semi-finals – they have lost them all.
When one man has failed in this campaign, another has succeeded. As Brendon McCullum fell early in their quarter-final against West Indies, Martin Guptill stepped up with the fastest ODI double century ever. Daniel Vettori, Trent Boult and Tim Southee have all been in the wickets, although Adam Milne’s absence for this semi will be felt.
It could prove beneficial that New Zealand have had the more competitive cricket of the two sides in their last two outings. They will also be supremely confident, with runs and wickets coming from everywhere.
There is also the small matter of the home crowd in Auckland. Whatever happens, this will be New Zealand’s final World Cup game in New Zealand this time around, with the final scheduled for Melbourne.
Will the crowd prove to be the proverbial 12th man, or can South Africa stifle them?
This is a very tough game to call. History weighs heavily against both; only one will venture into unknown territory. We’re feeling confident after our quarter-final clean sweep, though, and we’re going for New Zealand.
They have been the most exciting team at this tournament and they are redefining the boundaries of limited overs cricket. The all-out attack method has served them supremely well and there is zero chance of captain McCullum losing his nerve now. He is riding the crest of an incredible personal wave, almost dragging his side along through sheer will.
Whilst South Africa have de Villiers, Dale Steyn, Imran Tahir and Morne Morkel, their batting looks a little light if you can get into the middle order, and no side looks better equipped to do that than New Zealand. Then there is the fifth bowling option. McCullum and co won’t be having sleepless nights about JP Duminy, effective though he is.
Seventh time lucky… New Zealand to make the final.
By Miles Reucroft