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SA believe again as India question themselves

It all started in India. The new generation, which had the great side of 1970 to follow as the last to represent South Africa, walked out on to Eden Gardens in 1991.

It was India who offered a hand to a nation not yet three years away from the end of apartheid. Since then, South Africa’s and India’s cricket interests have more often then not been aligned. South Africa stepped in when the Indian Premier League (IPL) was moved from India and hosted a successful tournament with little time to prepare. And India recently toured South Africa, squaring the Test series and just losing the ODI series.

That parity was on display on Saturday night, and the match could be one of the biggest moments in this long, meandering tournament. South Africa, for their part, avenged the ghost of Chennai and managed to bowl out a batting line-up that looks to be one of the strongest at this tournament. Twenty-nine runs for nine wickets is catastrophic to a batting team’s efforts, but perhaps such a collapse shouldn’t be surprising.

Sachin Tendulkar is highly respected and not just for the fact that he has proved himself to be within touching distance of Don Bradman’s greatness, maybe even equalling the Don. Bradman’s average will never be bettered and it is pointless to compare two eras of the game that have about as much in common as a bowl of porridge and a piano. But, with that being said, he has firmly distanced himself from his nearest contemporary on the batting front in the modern era, Brian Lara, and owns every meaningful record about apart from the Don’s average and Lara’s 400 not out (Tests) and 501 not out (first class).

Having a man like Tendulkar at the top of the order immediately creates an imbalance, which might sound untrue since others of high standing follow the Little Master. In Virender Sehwag, India have an opening batsman that can compare with him, but in a very unique way. Gautam Gambhir, Yuvraj Singh, Virat Kohli and MS Dhoni follow the openers. With Tendulkar and Sehwag virtually handing them the ideal position to put the game beyond South Africa’s reach, they blew their lines, and spectacularly so.

And that is what I mean by creating an imbalance. With such star players — or in the commentary speak, a phrase that has already become a cliché, “premier batsman” — getting the India innings off to a start, the middle order, with the exception of Dhoni, pale in comparison and suffer under the weight of expectation. (The Indian skipper himself is an interesting man to watch. While it appears he is moving the field a little here and there, he is scheming, thinking of a way to best exploit the situation for his team’s advantage. This selflessness is an important characteristic in a captain, which is perhaps why the wicket-keeper told his players not to play for the crowd but for their country.)

The loss has left a team, which were seen as clear favourites, wondering. Yuvraj doesn’t appear to be safe under the high ball, to paraphrase rugby, while Gambhir is neither here nor there. He needed to continue pushing the tempo after Sehwag’s dismissal, but instead — and credit must go to South Africa — took more than a run a ball to get to his 50. In the circumstances, this loss of momentum left the middle order under-baked and lacking a driving force to tap into.

Cricket is often about momentum, especially during a session or an innings in one-day cricket. India had the momentum after the first 20 overs, but South Africa punctured it, and like a tyre India deflated. Without momentum for a batsman to tap into once he or she reaches the middle, it is that much harder to start an innings, since the best players can tap into the energy that is all around them, the atmosphere that the match itself creates.

India are wondering what happened, and doubting yourself is no way to win a World Cup. Australia might not have the best side at this tournament, but as four-time champions, they don’t doubt themselves for a second. Dhoni was asked why he went for Ashish Nehra instead of Harbhajan Singh for the vital final over of South Africa’s innings, and while the India skipper admitted he maybe should’ve gone for Harbhajan, he didn’t doubt himself when he made that choice. India are going to need more of that assurance as this tournament progresses.

For South Africa, that doubt has now disappeared and they are now in very good shape heading towards the quarterfinals. Their loss to England might have been a blessing in disguise.

Dale Steyn, a real predator of a bowler, seized on the deflation in India’s run rate and bowled exactly where he needed to. Robin Peterson picked up three wickets, again proving to the sizeable number of doubters back in South Africa that he is international material. He also proved his credentials with the bat, hitting the winning runs, which will probably be one of the moments of his brief international career. Petersen has been involved with South Africa for many years, but this World Cup is the first time he isn’t playing for his place, and it shows.

AB de Villiers is slowly morphing into South Africa’s best batsman, with Hashim Amla another contender for the crown. Jacques Kallis made a 50, albeit a slow one, which will assist South Africa’s greatest cricketer in getting up to speed with this Cricket World Cup. The middle order performed admirably, with Johan Botha and Faf du Plessis both playing important innings of muster.

The South African selectors have an interesting choice ahead of them. While Imran Tahir has taken wickets, Botha looks a much better batting prospect. Botha also bowled well against India when his colleagues were being hit across the park, anchoring South Africa’s comeback.

South Africa now have a realistic chance of topping the table at the end of the group stages, since by the time you read this they may be on their way to beating Ireland. Ireland did beat England, but that was in part to the English falling asleep at the wheel.

Certain pundits seem to have forgotten about the importance of topping the table. If either the quarterfinal or semifinal are entirely rained out, whoever finished higher in their respective group will go through. It rains in India, with the Australia-Sri Lanka game an example of that (and costing both sides an important test of their abilities leading into the knockouts).

It’s still anyone’s game, and with the West Indies set to play India and England, anything is possible.