Rampant Australia out to retain top-of-the-table position

It’s difficult not to hit the rewind button when you think of Australia v South Africa. But so spoilt is the rivalry between the two sides in terms of highlight moments and spotlight matches that you wouldn’t know how many times to then hit the pause and play buttons.

Considering we are at a World Cup and we are in England, perhaps you’d prefer letting the tape roll back all the way to 1999 and that famous evening in Birmingham to try and fathom why Allan Donald didn’t run – or maybe even a little bit more to see why Herschelle Gibbs felt compelled to throw the ball up in the air at Leeds.

And maybe that’s what those responsible for drawing up the schedule for the tournament here did too by ensuring the two highly competitive teams face each other in the final league game of the 2019 World Cup. Not many, including Faf du Plessis in his own admission, could ever have imagined it being anything short of a virtual quarterfinal, and definitely not an inconsequential match – unless of course you’re India and there’s a first-place finish for you at stake.

Considering the way their campaign has gone, it’s no surprise that it’s the Proteas who’ll be keen on looking back rather than forward at Old Trafford on Saturday (July 6). They need to only push back time to around eight months ago when they landed in Australia for a very short limited-overs series at a time their hosts were in disarray and they were on a high. The South Africans won three out of the four games played on tour convincingly, winning both the T20I and the ODI series, while Australian cricket remained mired in cultural reviews and marred by the Cape Town fiasco, still very fresh in the cricketing memory.

The scenarios, if not roles, have certainly been reversed ever since, with the Australians now confidently looking forward to what could be a sixth World Cup title, having been the first team to qualify for the knockout stage. If anything, theirs was the toughest itinerary on the calendar, having to face England, New Zealand and South Africa to close out the league stage. But so dominant were they against those first two opponents that you’d back them to get the better of the beleaguered Proteas and top the table to stay back in Manchester for the semi-final against the Kiwis.

South African cricket, however, is now like their Australian counterparts from October 2018, facing a number of uncomfortable questions with most answers and solutions covered in uncertainty.

Du Plessis tried his best to deal with most of them – whether it’s how many of his colleagues might take the Kolpak route to outlining his own future – and eventually revealed that the most important context of the match for his team now was this possibly being the last time a number of them would be playing together – if the setting wasn’t sombre already. For Australia, it’ll be a case of who is back in the mix since October, when Steve Smith and David Warner were still serving their bans.