Kiwis hold World Cup advantage, but South Africa has the edge in ODIs

History would seem to be on the Black Caps side but that depends through which prism you look through.

FILE: Members of the Proteas. Picture: Twitter @OfficialCSA.

BIRMINGHAM - This is it. The last chance. The edge of the knife’s edge. No margin for error. One false move and the journey is over.

It seems trite to speak of South Africa’s collision with New Zealand tomorrow in these terms but Faf du Plessis, Ottis Gibson, and every member of the squad knows that their World Cup dreams hang in the balance. Defeat in Edgbaston, the site of the 1999 tied semi-final (yes, that one), and the Proteas’ remaining three games become virtual dead rubbers.

History would seem to be on the Black Caps side but that depends through which prism you look through.

New Zealand has beaten South Africa in each of the last four World Cups. In 2003 in Johannesburg, Stephen Fleming’s unbeaten 134 secured a nine wicket victory; in 2007 in Grenada, Craig McMillan’s all-round display claimed a win by five wickets; in 2011, Jacob Oram’s medium pacers caused havoc as South Africa were bowled out for 172, 50 runs short of their target in Dhaka; in 2015, South African born Grant Elliott played the innings of his life in Auckland to triumph in the last over of a dramatic semi-final.

New Zealand hold a 7-2 advantage in World Cup, but it is a very different story when a global trophy is not on the line. In 10 bilateral series South Africa have won eight of them with 26 ODI wins to just 12 defeats. What is the reason for this disparity?

“If I knew I would tell you,” said Quinton de Kock, South Africa’s opening batsman and wicket keeper who was on the park when Elliott dispatched Dale Steyn into the stands four years ago.

Trent Boult, New Zealand’s opening bowler with the ability to move the ball both ways, was equally perplexed. “I’m not too sure. Whether there’s a lot of pressure on them, I’m not sure.”

As elite cricketers, Boult and de Kock are under qualified to speak on abstract concepts such as national psyche, collective emotional scars or shared trauma from past events. Besides, we would be shooting an arrow and painting a bulls eye around it if we tried to draw any tenuous links between these hard to quantify variables and previous results.

For whatever reason, New Zealand have managed to upset the Proteas on the biggest stage. But a win for the men in black tomorrow would not constitute an upset.

“I see them as one of the favourites,” all-rounder Chris Morris said after South Africa’s win over Afghanistan on Saturday. “They deserve to be considered more than just dark horses.”

The Kiwis are the third ranked ODI side in the world according to the ICC, one ahead of South Africa and behind only front-runners England and India. Ross Taylor is the third best batsman. Boult is the second best bowler. Mitchell Santner is the fifth best all-rounder. The Black Caps are the only side with a player in the top five of all three categories. They are a formidable outfit on a six game winning streak and are unburdened by a demanding public back home.

The game will be won or lost with the new ball. Both sides possess a clutch of world class top order batsmen and opening bowlers who can run through any lineup once they get a whiff of blood as they charge in.

Boult and de Kock offers an intriguing match up and the winner of their personal duel could prove decisive. The pair have squared off for 79 balls with de Kock scoring 64 runs at a strike-rate of 81.1, down from his career figure of 95.39. Boult has had the measure of his fellow southpaw, delivering 47 dot balls and ripping him out four times for a strike-rate of 19.75 and an average of 16.

“We know what we’re going to get,” de Kock said of the battle up front. “The emphasis is on the whole game, not just about the bat and ball up front. I don’t think it’s all down just to the start of the bowlers and us [opening batsmen].”

Since the last World Cup only India’s Shikar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma have scored more runs together at the top of the order than de Kock and Hashim Amla. The South Africans average 51.64 together and have registered five stands of three figures including 104 against Afghanistan.

“We rely on each other out there,” de Kock said of his experienced teammate. “I think we compliment each other really well, the way we go about things. It’s good batting with him again.”

Cynics will argue that their recent hundred tun stand counts for less because it was registered against lowly opposition. Adding fuel for the pitchforks was the pedestrian nature of partnership, coming off 134 balls. This meandering stay in the middle is amplified by the English arsenal of power hitters who posted 397/6 against the same attack.

But time in the middle is invaluable. Amla’s unbeaten 41 off 83 contained little in the way of highlights but added some mileage to the 36 year old’s bat. Runs against New Zealand will vindicate his previous performance and silence the critics.

However, if Amla and de Kock fail to get going, if Boult and co start nipping a few South Africans out early, the pendulum could swing irreversibly in favour of the Antipodeans. For as long as cricket has been played, the utilisation of the new ball has shaped the contest. South Africa’s opening partners know how much depends on their performance. One false move and the World Cup could at the hands of a Kiwi yet again.