South Africa’s Missing World Cup Ingredient: A touch of Klusener

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.

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Ian Bell: England’s man for all forms of the game

It’s one of the oldest phrases in the book, but what the hell: “Like a fine wine, Ian Bell seems to get better with age.”

At the moment England can’t get enough of Ian Bell, Ashes centurion, slayer of the Australians, now nicknamed “The Terminator” by Shane Warne and recent match-winner of their latest tour game against the Prime Ministers.

Certainly this is a far cry from the hellish experience he suffered four years ago in Australia where one felt he was surely being pushed to within one step of a breakdown such was his torment at the hands of a mighty fine Australian outfit.

Yet that was a different Ian Bell, certainly compared with the authorative, commanding batsman who now regularly accepts centre stage for England though who is rarely afforded it.

Indeed after two years of middling success and a constant barrage of criticism over a whole range of things such as his inability to score a ODI hundred, his inability to score a Test century on his own, and his ability to find such weird ways to get himself out when well set, perhaps now the time finally has come to accept Ian Bell for what he has finally become.

Because he is now probably England’s best batsmen, perhaps in any form of the game. Sure Kevin Pietersen has the extravagance and ability to dominate even the best bowlers, but his double century not withstanding he has still to regularly hit big scores consistently to match up to his talent.

Cook and Trott may have the numbers-Cook the most runs recently, Trott the highest average-but neither particularly dominates. They both set themselves up, to nudge and to nurdle-more to infuriate a bowler than to cow them. Strauss is now more of a dasher-a more dominating and better batsman but not quite as effective a run scorer as in his early days in Test cricket.

All the while there is Bell who in a sense fits the bill of all.

Certainly style is not a problem, as he has a game the purists dream of. His cover drive is nigh on glorious, all high elbow and a lovely fluid movement of the bat while he also sweeps like the best of them.  He now dominates bowlers, not in a Jacques Kallis powerful kind of way, but more through cashing in on poorer balls, threading eye of the needle drives around the park and forever looking to move his feet to come down the track to spinners as if his name were Sachin and he came from India.

Yet he has coupled this with a stick ability that makes him respected. Lest we forget that it was Bell who kept Collingwood company for much of his rearguard action in South Africa, that it was he who played lone hands to keep England competitive when they were down in Perth and in Brisbane.

The question now for him is what next. Exciting times these are for England’s Test number six. One would venture a place at number five in the World Cup will beckon, though don’t be too surprised if a move to open comes about if Davies fails to hit his straps.

He has played that role with moderate success before but he is more than capable of playing it better now as he keeps the scoreboard ticking, can clear the boundary if needed and plays both seam and spin well-something which neither Davies or Kieswetter can state confidently.

Then there is the Twenty20 team. Bell hasn’t been part of that for a long time, but stated after his ton for the tourists against the Prime Ministers XI that he fancied a bit of T20 for England. So here’s a mad idea-make him captain once Collingwood eventually retires and slowly but surely integrate him into the team.

His batting easily surpasses Collingwood, he has captaincy experience with Warwickshire and appears to thrive on it, and his ground fielding-though not Collingwood-esque-is still probably amongst the best in the world-a vital part of T20 cricket.

In Test matches, he’ll almost certainly take on the number five position-as a key pivot in this England team-and may ultimately end up back at number three where he so wants to be in a couple of years.

One wouldn’t doubt him to do it, because after years of struggle things finally look like their paying off for Ian Bell, who now surely must be England’s man for all forms of the game.

Why Ajmal Shahzad is the coming man in England’s World Cup plans

It is hard to find nagging doubts about the current state of England’s One Day cricket given that they have recently won series’ against Bangladesh, South Africa and Australia, plus of course, that Twenty20 success in the Caribbean.

But there are some, though in the general context of England’s performances’ in limited overs cricket, they seem rather minute.

Certainly the recent loss of form suffered by Craig Kieswetter and Kevin Pietersen are potential headaches, as is the potential lack of balance towards bowlers over batsmen with Michael Yardy having to come in at 6 is a cause for concern. Though these are rather offset by the continued success of Andrew Strauss, Eoin Morgan, Stuart Broad and Graeme Swann-who can all expect to be key players for England next year.

Though the central problem to England’s World Cup hopes may rest of their bowlers, or specifically their new ball pairing of Tim Bresnan and James Anderson-who are more McCague and Malcolm than McGrath and Lee.

Bresnan’s position is intriguing-clearly favoured because of his all-round ability, he has rather offset the gains he made in Bangladesh, by failing to make much impression in the reverse Test series, Australia ODI series and recent ODI series against Bangladesh.

Certainly it is intriguing that England continue to give him the new ball in the hope he can do severe damage, because he has yet to demonstrate the edge which would make him the man to spearhead England’s attack.

Meanwhile his partner Anderson, has found life a struggle following his enforced rest against Bangladesh. He has been expensive, and struggled to find that cutting edge which marked his better days in international cricket.

While he was omitted on Monday due to “rotation”, there was an inescapable sense that it was a decision made more out of poor form than the need to protect against injury (something reinforced by the sight of him appearing as a substitute fielder).

This has left England struggling to take wickets and bowl teams out, a necessary commodity if a team wishes to succeed at the highest level in international cricket-which is the real cause for concern in this current setup-and something that will need to be remedied by the time the World Cup comes.

But potential salvation for Strauss and England comes in the shape of Ajmal Shahzad. His captain went on record to praise the Yorkshire bowler for his two wickets against Bangladesh on Monday, an acknowledgement that Shahzad is very much in their plans.

While he may lack experience at the highest level, and occasionally appear very raw, he has a fast, strong action, bowls at express pace-regularly topping 90 mph-and is capable of delivering fast, straight Yorkers with apparent ease.

It is a cocktail which makes him an intriguing prospect-and more importantly for an English bowler it means his game is not overly reliant on swing-all of which could be important in the World Cup.

This is why he is the one to watch in England’s World Cup plans. Pace, and a wicket-taking ability-remains a key part of ODI cricket-as England discovered when they faced a Shaun Tait-led Australia, and this is precisely what Shahzad would bring to an England team.

Perhaps more importantly above all else, it is precisely these qualities that they need to find in one day cricket.