After a month of league games, most of which went according to expectations, the knockouts are finally here. Sri Lanka will face South Africa in the first quarter-final at Sydney on Wednesday. Both sides are well matched, and have often run each other close in ICC events. In the 2003 World Cup, Marvan Attapatu's classic century led them to a victory in a key league clash. South Africa got their own back when they defeated the Lankans in 2007, but not before Lasith Malinga gave them a massive scare by claiming four wickets in four balls. Knockouts are where Proteas are most vulnerable, and Lanka would be aware of the same.
South Africa have progressed into the quarters on the back of some question marks. The biggest worry for them remains the form of opener Quinton de Kock. Opening is such a crucial position as it often sets up the tone of the match for the respective side. AB de Villiers clearly cannot burden himself with the keeping duties as he already has so much on his plate. This means de Kock will continue to find a place in the eleven. If anything, they can move him down the order, and ask one of the middle order batsmen to open. But, will they take a risk in such a big game? Most of the batsmen have been in good form, which is good news for South Africa as they head into the quarters.
In spite of some excellent batting efforts, South Africa have demonstrated their affinity to succumb under pressure. While they won four matches in the league stage, both their defeats have come chasing, and that too against top sides like India and Pakistan. Their defeat to Pakistan was particularly disappointing since their overreliance on de Villiers of exposed. The likes of Hashim Amla, Faf du Plessis and Rilee Rossouw failed. South Africa would be looking up to de Villiers again as they look to book a place in the semis. The fifth bowler is another major worry for South Africa, particularly with Dale Steyn not hitting peak form yet.
For Sri Lanka, it has really been about their batting. After losing badly to New Zealand in the tournament opener, they have taken their batting to a completely different level. Kumar Sangakkara has led the way with four centuries in a row. Expecting him to make it five in a row may be a bit too much, but the elegant left-hander is in such sublime form that five in five is a possibility. Tillakaratne Dilshan too has been in excellent form, and has notched up a couple of hundreds. Lanka would be pleased that Lahiru Thirimanne has taken up the challenge of opening, and has succeeded at the same. The match will be crucial for Mahela Jayawardene, who hasn't done much post his ton versus Afghanistan.
Bowling is where South Africa could really hurt Sri Lanka. Malinga has had success against the Proteas, and he even got some key wickets in the match against Australia in a run-fest. But, he clearly isn't as sharp as he was back in 2007. Also, Sri Lanka would be desperate for Rangana Herath to get fit. In the absence of the left-arm spinner, Lanka have been playing with only one match-winning bowler. Their lack of potency with the ball was completely exposed against the Aussies as Glenn Maxwell tore them apart. Angelo Mathews and Thisara Perera are definite weak links in the bowling. Can South Africa expose the same?
--By A Cricket Analyst