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West Indies enter semifinals after nervy win

Wisden India logo Wisden India 25-03-2016

They had come to watch fireworks from AB de Villiers and Chris Gayle. Together, two of the men who could perhaps put on 300 in a 20-over match if things went their way, faced a total of 14 balls for 14 runs at the VCA Stadium in Nagpur. But Good Friday (March 25) still gave a ground packed almost to capacity – with surely the highest number of spectators for a non-India match at the ICC World Twenty20 2016 – their money’s worth with a low-scoring thriller.

Put in to bat, Faf du Plessis’s men couldn’t get too much right in putting on 122 for 8, not able to get the canny West Indian bowlers away on a pitch that had the ball stopping and not coming on to the bat. Then, their deep batting line-up notwithstanding, West Indies were made to fight for every run, and it came down to two young guns facing off in the final over with nine runs needed. Carlos Brathwaite missed the first ball from Kagiso Rabada, but a length delivery next up was smashed into the midwicket stands and West Indies squeezed home by three wickets in 19.4 overs.

The win meant West Indies were assured of a semifinal spot, and need to only beat Afghanistan in their next game on Sunday to progress undefeated. For South Africa, their fate is no longer in their hands, and they need a number of things to go their way to make it to the final four.

Before the tournament, both camps would have identified this match as the key one for them in Group 1, and it did live up to expectations as a contest, both teams pushing each other to their limits.

South Africa would have been left ruing the sub-par batting display. Their innings was one that looked for the fourth gear too often, but could never get out of second, like a car travelling constantly uphill and not able to floor the accelerator. That was in part due to poor decision making, but also largely due to West Indies finding the right pace variety on a pitch that afforded purchase for bowlers.

Hashim Amla was run out off the third ball of the match, hesitation with calling and running giving West Indies a valuable wicket. Quinton de Kock had slapped Samuel Badree to point, but a good diving save and quick release by Andre Russell meant Amla was caught just short. Before South Africa could catch their collective breath, they were 20 for 3 in three overs. Du Plessis hit Russell to Sulieman Benn, who plucked the catch inches off the ground at mid-off. Gayle, handed the ball for the first time in the tournament, got Rilee Rossouw – one of South Africa’s two inclusions in the team alongside Aaron Phangiso with JP Duminy injured and Kyle Abbott left out – in his first over.

Gayle’s strike heralded the entry of de Villiers, and like it has happened at every cricket ground in India, South Africa’s champion was given a rousing reception. The first ball he faced sped to the straight boundary, but the de Villiers show ended there. A hush descended on the ground on the fourth ball of the seventh over, Dwayne Bravo pulling out one of the many varieties of slower deliveries he has. De Villiers’s whip barely touched ball, which went on to hit timber. That struck at the heart of South Africa’s dreams of a better-than-average total, since de Villiers was the one man who could have adeptly countered the sluggish surface and given the innings impetus.

After he fell, it was down to de Kock to steer the show, and he did that as well as he could. South Africa’s best phase was a 50-run stand for the sixth wicket in 44 balls between de Kock and David Wiese, both men hustling the ones and twos while picking off the rare boundary. But de Kock (47 off 46) fell to an ill-advised attempt to paddle Russell over fine leg to lose his leg stump in the 16th over, and whatever hope the South Africans would have entertained of a final-overs push ended there.

All three of Gayle, Russell and Bravo ended with two wickets each, and all three had made important strikes, too, either getting the dangerous batsmen out or striking just when South Africa wanted to accelerate.

Chasing only above a run a ball, West Indies would always be favourites even on a track that didn’t aid the kind of strokeplay they are famous for. South Africa bowled well in patches and fielded as tigerishly as the West Indians had, but all that was needed was for them to keep their heads in the chase.

Rabada had given South Africa early hope by sending Gayle’s stumps for a walk in the first over, but even though Gayle’s contribution in the match was greater with ball than bat, it didn’t significantly hamper the chase. South Africa needed wickets – and regularly – to have a hope of defending the target, and they couldn’t break through early enough.

West Indies had partnerships of 29, 32 and 21 for the second, third and fourth wickets at more or less a run a ball – not earth-shattering but crucial when a low target was being chased in not allowing the bowling side to reap the momentum of a rush of wickets.

Imran Tahir, who might have been expected to make the key strikes, started off by bowling a strangely quicker and flatter trajectory but in his last over, he had Russell and Darren Sammy off consecutive balls to spark the contest back into life. West Indies went from 24 off 24 balls with six wickets in hand to needing 23 off the last three overs with four wickets left. Tahir ended with 2 for 13, the best figures with all South African bowlers getting among the wickets.

Marlon Samuels, who had held the chase together with 43 off 44, then fell in the penultimate over to Chris Morris, making for further intrigue. It had been a fine innings till then from Samuels, who wasn’t always fluent but hung in there – even benefitting from a dropped catch via Tahir who could have had three wickets in one over.

But Brathwaite proved equal to the task after Samuels fell, and sealed it for West Indies.

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