Proteas at 'sixes and sevens'
Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Despite a rather jolting, one-run defeat in the second one-day international against India, South Africa are arguably three quarters or more of the way to knowing their staple line-up for key matches at the looming World Cup.
And to my mind, surrendering the Wanderers nail-biter on Saturday – which leaves the five-match series delicately poised at 1-1 – may perversely have been exactly what they needed in the broader interest to clear some confusion strategically.
Obviously all Proteas enthusiasts are pinning their hopes on a full return to fitness by evergreen all-rounder Jacques Kallis for the keynote tournament on the Subcontinent in a few weeks’ time, which will nicely sort out the bread for the team “sandwich”, as it were, if not all of the filling.
Here’s one slice of the bread: a batting line-up from slots one to five that is very unlikely to differ from (in this order) Graeme Smith, Hashim Amla, Kallis, AB de Villiers and JP Duminy.
And this, I strongly suspect, will, or should be, the other “slice” – positions eight to 11 occupied by now pretty established bowlers Johan Botha, Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Lonwabo Tsotsobe. That is said while acknowledging that players like Wayne Parnell and Imran Tahir will aspire to breaking into that particular tract of real estate.
That leaves just middle-zone Nos 6 and 7 to be sorted out, and it is here where the national selectors, who are due to name the World Cup party soon after Tuesday’s third ODI at Newlands, are still being presented with plenty of head-scratching, because getting these important areas right could make or break South Africa’s campaign.
The unfortunate loss in the Bullring, from a position where they had appeared to be holding the aces for so long, really ought to have convinced the wise men that the Proteas’ tail, as currently structured against the Indians, is simply too long.
I fervently hope that the vital realisation they will have come to is that Botha at No 7 is one rung too high for ODIs ... and not just in South African conditions.
There is a school of thought (and it does have some elements of merit, in truth) that the expected batting-friendly conditions at the World Cup will mean tail-end batsmen potentially come into play only infrequently, and that it is worth the risk of being a little “light” at the bottom end of the order if it facilitates greater bowling depth.
Subcontinent or not, I nevertheless have a hunch that several canny opponents of South Africa will rev up their bowlers by suggesting that if they can make early breakthroughs, a soft Proteas underbelly might just be crucially exposed.
My other fear is that, as presently witnessed in the India series, South Africa’s generally impressive arsenal of seasoned batting specialists are subconsciously being placed under unnecessary extra mental pressure by the very knowledge that if they mess up, it could be curtains as an overall line-up at the crease in a pressure-cooker situation.
Ignore, too, I think, that cool customer Botha got a particularly lousy leg before wicket verdict from Brian Jerling at the Wanderers and might feasibly have stuck around otherwise to see South Africa past the post on Saturday night – such a scenario would still not have screamed that his occupation of the No 7 post is the right thing.
Right now there is simply not enough batting peace of mind below Duminy’s No 5 berth, especially with the immediate place below him in the hands of still-rookie David Miller, who has obvious strengths as a boundary-seeker but also some all-too-apparent rough edges to his game.
Similarly, what becomes of Colin Ingram, firing inconsistently at No 3 at present in the temporary shoes of Kallis?
Is he suited to a possible switch to No 6 at the World Cup? There is some evidence that he is not, because you get the impression he is one of those who needs a bit of time to play himself in, and that is not always a luxury available there.
Then there is the Faf du Plessis situation: the Titans man was a maiden call-up for the Indian series, but has not earned a start yet.
Perhaps the attacking batsman and occasional “leggie” will finally get a crack at Newlands, although he might well have the double burden of making his debut plus knowledge that his success or failure in a possible “once-off” appearance ahead of the World Cup squad finalisation could – unreasonably, really! -- affect his passage to it.
Of course the ideal for the Proteas at problematic Nos 6 and 7 is at least one player who can contribute a few overs, as well as provide some suitable proficiency and urgency with the willow, and I can’t help wondering whether the ongoing uncertainty isn’t quietly rekindling the Cup claims of Albie Morkel.
Maybe a fall-back on experience, to some extent, will be considered. The 51-cap Morkel hardly lacks that, while much the same applies to someone like Robin Peterson, who is at least in the current ODI squad anyway, albeit not yet used against India.
And here’s a little left-fielder for you: couldn’t the Proteas do a whole lot worse than chew on the known big-match temperament qualities – say as a No 7 “finisher” – of a certain Mark Boucher, who also gives your travelling squad a second wicketkeeper again?
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