SYDNEY - South Africa v Sri Lanka in Sydney on Wednesday, the first of three fascinating World Cup quarter-finals could be sub-titled as Under-achievers v Over-achievers. Or Chokers v Chasers.

Chasing was the Achilles heel of Australia whenever they were set a small target as world Test champions a decade or two ago. When England failed to chase down 85 in the Oval Test of 1882, the body of English cricket was cremated and the Ashes born.

But if the definition of choking in cricket is failing to knock off a target that would have been easily achieved in a less pressurised situation, South Africa in World Cups have become the brand-leaders. It has resulted in their never having reached a final, whereas Sri Lanka won the World Cup in 1996 and reached the last two finals.

South Africa’s quarter-final in 2011 was a classic case: they had only to chase down New Zealand’s modest total of 221, yet they did not get close. Their desire to win their first global tournament, like that of the desperate lover, was too intense.

Chasing in normal circumstances has become the vogue, where once the maxim was “always bat first”. But chasing in a knock-out game is different, because the situation occurs so rarely and cannot be rehearsed. Like paying the tax bill, or cleaning the toilet bowl, you only do it when you absolutely have to.

That is why Eoin Morgan’s decision to bowl first against Bangladesh, in what was in effect a knock-out game, was so strange. He voluntarily put his head in the noose. When chasing, batsmen tend to play the ball according to the run-rate required not its merits. Run-outs are likelier.

Adelaide had seen morning rain and Morgan wanted to give England’s pace bowlers the chance to swing the new balls in a fresh atmosphere. But chasing Bangladesh’s 275 proved too steep for players who have grown up without the benefit of similar experiences at a formative age – except in the Under-19 World Cup, where England have under-performed almost as regularly as their seniors have since 1992.

When batting first in this World Cup, South Africa have imperturbably racked up 339-4 against Afghanistan, 408-5 against West Indies, 411-4 against Ireland and 341-6 against the UAE. When batting second, South Africa have been too easily perturbed. Chasing India’s 307, they crumbled to 177. Chasing a revised target of 232 against Pakistan, they mustered 202. There were exceptional circumstances in that Pakistan had three left-arm pace bowlers, and judging by the way Hashim Amla and Faf du Plessis tried to steer balls angled across them, South Africa were unprepared for this form of attack, but still. Sri Lanka on the other hand are well-suited to chasing. Their pace bowling and fielding can be pretty ropey, but if they keep their opponents to 300, their batting is calm and skilful enough to knock them off. When they passed England’s 309 in Wellington, it was only the second time a country had chased down a 300-plus target for the loss of a single wicket.

Kumar Sangakkara master-minded that run-chase with 117 off 86 balls. He has since gone on to make it four consecutive World Cup centuries, another record for the 37 year-old who is in the form of his life, and determined to retire from the ODI format with a bang - just as he won the World T20 final in his last game in that format. Sangakkara is not alone. Sri Lanka have the oldest and most experienced team in this tournament, as literally battle-hardened as any professional cricket team could be. If you have survived a terrorist attack in Lahore, the pressure of a run-chase is placed in perspective as mere sport.

For South Africa, their best chance lies in winning the toss and batting first in Sydney; too many skeletons will be rattling around the dressing-room if they have to chase. Sri Lanka, more versatile, can win if they bat first or second.

Both teams have played at the Sydney Cricket Ground in this tournament already, so they are all somewhat familiar with conditions. However, the pitch will play a big part. South Africa smashed over 400 runs in Sydney when they played West Indies, while Sri Lanka lost to Australia. But the surface can sometimes be low and slow with a par first innings score of just 250. A slow pitch will be a massive boost for Sri Lanka, especially if Rangana Herath recovers from the injury he sustained.

 According to reports, Herath is on track for recovery ahead of the quarterfinal.

Herath’s recovery will ease some of the pressure on Lasith Malinga, a player some pundits say Sri Lanka rely on far too much.  Still, South Africa got away lightly by facing Sri Lanka in the quarterfinals and not Australia. Sri Lanka and South Africa are not too dissimilar in terms of their balance and both teams have had trouble with the bowling in the last ten overs of the innings. Sri Lanka are a good team but avoiding the hosts and the hostile crowd that comes with it will be a big relief for the Proteas as they begin their journey to try and exorcise the ghosts of ICC tournaments past.


AB de Villiers (Capt), Hashim Amla, Kyle Abbott, Farhaan Behardien, Quinton de Kock, Jean-Paul Duminy, Faf du Plessis, Imran Tahir, David Miller, Morne Morkel, Wayne Parnell, Aaron Phangiso, Vernon Philander, Rilee Rossouw, Dale Steyn    

A Mathews (Capt), T Dilshan, Upul Tharanga, S Lakmal, Nuwan Kulasekara, Lasith Malinga, T Perera, L Thirimanne, M Jayawardene, S Prasanna, K Sangakkara, Kushal Janith Perera, Rangana Herath, S Senanayake, Dushmantha Chameera    

head to head record

     Total played    South Africa    Sri Lanka

Matches played    59    28    29

In World Cup    4    2    1

Last match

July 12, 2014: South Africa won by 82 runs at Hambantota.