For the first time in over ten years we enter the World Cup’s latter stages with no team clear favourites for the trophy.
After years of witnessing Australia march with swaggering authority to title after title, this has been the tournament of the unpredictable, the unexpected. Favourite after favourite have endured both highs and lows as they seek that winning formula to take the title.
India’s bowling has toiled, Sri Lanka’s middle order has sagged, England appear to be running on empty, Australia look bereft of their inspiration and Pakistan are, well, Pakistan and no-one knows which version will turn up.
South Africa, perennial favourites at least in the minds of everyone except themselves, have hit the ground running faster than most bar that aberration against England. In truth the only question-mark against them is that cursed “c” word, yet they have another working in their favour: “complete”.
Unlike their predecessors they appear the most complete South African team of all.
They have a sound top order, a tactically flexible and inspirational captain in Graeme Smith, explosive fielders, superb pace bowlers and a trio of spinners who are both experienced performers in limited overs formats and more importantly three different types of bowlers who can all take wickets.
Yet while this represents their best team, their most complete team, the defeat against England showed up one missing ingredient: a late order finisher capable of carrying them over the line. In short, they miss someone like Lance Klusener.
That 1999 World Cup semi-final remains a mythical moment in South African cricket, the moment where they got to the brink but then watched it all disappear, it was the moment where the word “choker” became a South African staple.
Yet what is often forgotten is quite how Klusener, there at the bitter end, managed to drag the team there in the first place.
He appeared late in the innings, coming in at seven, and brought carnage with him. He smashed 52 off 45 balls, 48 runs off 40 balls against England and 46 runs off 41 against a Pakistan attack including Wasim Akram and Shoaib Akhtar. In an era four years prior to Twenty20 was a twinkling in the eye, Klusener was firing 4s and 6s to all corners.
Even in that semi-final, it was Klusener who took South Africa to the brink of victory. Striding in with their target far from secure at 7-183, it was he who brought some much needed impetus to their chase with 4 fours and 1 six before that run out.
It was a defining moment, and for Klusener things would never be quite the same again. He struggled to match the heights as consistently, though such a run of form is rare to come by for even the best players, though he was not helped by the whim of the South African selectors.
Yet his ability to smash boundaries to all corners, his frenetic all-action game were something special when on form. Something South Africa have probably lacked since: a proper finisher.
They’ve tried to find some since, the likes of Ryan McLaren, Albie Morkel and Justin Kemp have tried hard but none have managed to fill it quite like Klusener once did.
The defeat against England highlighted the need for such a player, as England tightened the screws South Africa’s batsmen froze under the pressure with De Villiers, Duminy and Van Wyk disappeared. When the game demanded someone to step up and break the shackles and keep the score ticking over, South Africa’s middle order ran to the hills and collapsed like a pack of cards.
What they needed was a Mike Hussey, a Yusuf Pathan or even a Klusener to help turn the tide in their favour. It is the achilles heel of this line-up, which Smith will hope is not exposed to the kind of pressure which England, and previously India have shown can be exploited.
In a team packed with strike bowlers, trump cards and dynamos what they need most of all is a finisher. What they could use is a touch of Lance Klusener, the man who was there right to the very end, for better or worse.