Cape Town – Sri Lanka’s swelling win habit and confidence at the World Cup has increased the chance of South Africa having to play old enemy – and so often major-tournament nemesis -- Australia in the quarter-finals.
The Proteas, in a perfect world, would prefer to avoid either of the Aussies or their in-form co-hosts New Zealand in the last-eight stage, and a few days ago the planets appeared to be aligning slowly for the ‘Lankans, usually not as tough off the Subcontinent, to be the first knockout opposition for AB de Villiers and company.
That was on the assumption that South Africa would probably end second behind India in Pool B, thus facing the third-placed outfit in the other group (Sri Lanka were looking really good prospects at one stage to land up there, behind both host countries in Pool A).
Various permutations are still possible in both pools, of course, but as the World Cup experiences a rest day on Monday, the opportunity to paint a picture of the likely finishing pecking order presents itself.
And suddenly the SA v Sri Lanka scenario for the quarters looks a bit less clear-cut than some might have imagined.
The ‘Lankans, after a 98-run hammering from the Black Caps first up, have gradually warmed to the event, since seeing off all of Afghanistan, Bangladesh and then England at the weekend in a particularly brutal demolition job in Wellington by nine wickets.
Kumar Sangakkara, their 37-year-old batting maestro, boasts successive unbeaten centuries.
Nevertheless, in Australasian conditions, there can be little doubt that the Proteas would choose Sri Lanka for their quarters foes if they could, ahead of either New Zealand or Australia.
But the risk has increased that Australia – SA heart-breakers in 1999 and easily victorious the last time they met in knockout play at the World Cup in the 2007 Caribbean semis – instead will stand in the way for a quarter-final.
The Aussies may well finish third, bearing in mind that they currently sport just one win from three fixtures (against the hapless England) and one of their other outcomes is an inconvenient Brisbane no-result against Bangladesh where they picked up just one log point.
That intended date on February 21 fell victim to torrential rain on the supposed “Sunshine Coast” – the only wash-out of the entire tournament thus far; the Aussies would have been heavily fancied to win.
There is now every chance that when Australia meet Sri Lanka in Sydney on Sunday (Michael Clarke’s side ought to first thrash rank minnows Afghanistan at the pacey WACA on Wednesday) it will be a virtual decider of who plays the Proteas in the quarters, with the loser being installed as that team.
If the Aussies do beat Afghanistan, then Sri Lanka and finally Scotland in Pool A, they will advance to nine points and probable second-placed finish behind the unbeaten (four from four so far, and eight points) Black Caps.
New Zealand end their pool obligations with relatively easy -- on paper -- home tussles with Afghanistan (Napier) and Bangladesh (Hamilton), so it will be a major turn-up for the books if they are belatedly muscled out of top berth.
Assuming the ‘Lankans lose to the Aussies, they will almost certainly end with eight points in the pool and in third on a closing tally of eight points – they would yet have to face Scotland, still without a tournament victory after three matches.
But with the likes of Messrs Sangakkara, Dilshan, Thirimanne and Jayawardene in fine nick at the crease, Sri Lanka should have a puncher’s chance when they tackle the Aussies at the SCG.
There is still the opportunity for a favourable spanner going into the works in Pool B and the Proteas pipping India to top spot there, but it will need the Indians, who have already beaten SA, to slip at least once against any of remaining foes West Indies, Ireland and Zimbabwe and De Villiers’s troops to make sure they beat all of Ireland (Tuesday in Canberra, 05:30 SA time) Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates.
India’s net run rate (+2.630) is also superior at present to South Africa’s (+1.260).
If the Proteas do manage to overhaul India, though, they would potentially be set to tackle a relatively humdrum fourth-placed team from Pool A – in all likelihood one of England or Bangladesh.
But if the form book manages to stay reasonably reliable for the next few days, expect the rare situation next Sunday of many South Africans egging on Australia to down the ‘Lankans and help dampen the danger of that all-southern hemisphere grudge match as quickly as the quarters ...
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