Fit AB will remedy SA’s woes
Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - South Africa have disappointingly started their summer on the back foot, surrendering the short one-day international series 2-1 to touring arch-rivals Australia in the tense decider at Kingsmead on Friday.
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The outcome will have further irked the many who follow the fortunes of our country’s various major sports teams, given that nation’s current mini-stranglehold over the Springboks at rugby as well.
It significantly raises the onus now on the Proteas to achieve what was always going to be the main objective of the Aussie challenge anyway: winning the two-Test series which starts at Newlands on November 9.
This is supposed to be a period of transition for the once-untouchable Australians, so South Africa already playing second fiddle against them on home soil from a limited-overs point of view is certainly cause for some concern.
Given Australia’s illustrious heritage, it is unlikely that they will remain in a rebuild mode for too long, and more spiritedly start challenging anew for hilltop real estate on all of the global ranking ladders.
It also brings into sharp focus once more the glaring drawback new coach Gary Kirsten and his fellow-strategists experienced ahead of the Aussie visit, with an infernal, franchise-level Twenty20 circus in India - albeit a lucratively-paid one, which could be said to throw up angry questions of another kind among the game’s purists - playing havoc with any quest to properly “glue” a Proteas squad ahead of the visit by Michael Clarke and company.
Yes, several of the Aussie players were in action at the Champions League too, but they had also not long before that come off a strenuous and successful national tour of Sri Lanka which clearly kept them sharper during the off-season than South Africa’s counterparts, who nevertheless deserved a solid break and are at least showing signs of getting closer to hitting their straps.
Still, even the Test series is already worrying me more than I would like it to from a Proteas perspective: several of our best campaigners will enter it off a complete diet of one-day cricket, as we are frustratingly in the throes of a final weekend of SuperSport Series matches before the first-class competition takes a less-than-helpful break until December 15.
Oh, how beneficial a long-form domestic game, ahead of the Cape Town Test, would have been for someone like Dale Steyn, the premier strike bowler who is slowly getting better as the winter cobwebs fall off but desperately needs a protracted bowl for rhythm purposes.
He showed in Durban on Friday, on a pitch of strangely complex personality, that he is beginning to get his basic disciplines right ... but his trademark “zip” remains rather too elusive with the Tests just around the corner.
That sharp observer Kepler Wessels correctly noted in commentary from Kingsmead that while Steyn’s use of a multitude of mix-it-up skills is obviously not to be sniffed at, he is at his vintage best when he is going past the edge consistently at 142-145km/h, not rolling the ball over his wrist or bowling slow bouncers and the like.
The tourists, meanwhile, only get another advantageous chance to sharpen their act further when they play South Africa ‘A’ over four days on the lovely batting surface of Senwes Park in Potchefstroom from Tuesday!
The series-deciding outcome in Durban usefully cements Australia’s position at the top of the ODI rankings, with the Proteas staying in fourth and at least aided by England’s recent 0-5 flop in India which will keep them firmly curtailed to fifth for the moment.
But South Africa are second on the Test charts and under rightful pressure to dispose of the fourth-placed Aussies after failing to win any of their last three major home series - against India last season, England before that and the very same Aussies a season earlier.
The quicker they can get AB de Villiers, a key member of their senior batting firm, back in the mix the better - he is fighting to recover from his finger fracture in time for Newlands although a better bet probably still remains the second Test at the Wanderers from November 17.
He was glaringly missed again in the final ODI, where outside of the top three the Proteas seemed to get more and more bogged down on the tricky surface which meant they totalled an insufficient 222 for six after a promising, rollicking enough start after enjoying the benefit of batting first in a day/nighter again.
I always had a sneaky feeling that with a certain Mike Hussey lurking handily as low as No 6 in the Aussie order, they would be able to get over the line: here is a hugely experienced customer boasting 4 862 runs for his country in 50-overs cricket and one of the best on the planet at adjusting to on-day conditions.
The Proteas, by contrast, fielded Faf du Plessis at No 5 (288 ODI runs) and David Miller at six (267 runs). That is no criticism: it is simply an illustration of their inexperience in relation to someone like the nerveless Hussey.
And although De Villiers has not yet had the opportunity to show his freshly-appointed leadership skills, he will presumably do so in the next ODI series against Sri Lanka during summer-proper, thus allowing Hashim Amla to focus more all-embracingly on his own vital batting again.
The soft-spoken Dolphins man having the reins does not seem ideal, especially given that he sometimes even drops hints that he is lukewarm about the responsibility: can you afford that sort of situation when you go head-to-head with an uncompromising team like Australia, led by someone - Clarke - who clearly thrives on having the extra burden?
The more I think about it, too, the more I suspect the gladiatorial Johan Botha, already a prior series-winner in this capacity Down Under, has been given a raw deal in national limited-overs captaincy terms ... giving him back the vice-captaincy, at least, might be a step in a productive direction.