Australia in SA

Proteas travel as outsiders

2014-03-15 14:00
Faf du Plessis (Gallo Images)

Cape Town - Given their more traditional penchant for going to major ICC tournaments as a highly-rated team likely to melt when the heat is turned up at a pretty advanced stage, perhaps the current cloud of uncertainty over the South African cause makes for a welcome change?

That is the most optimistic spin you can muster as the Proteas set off this weekend for the World Twenty20 tournament in Bangladesh.

One thing is fairly certain: they travel knowing that they aren’t on the “podium” when it comes to bookies’ forecasts for the event – Australia, who have just seen off the very South Africans 2-0 in their own backyard, and Subcontinent forces India and Sri Lanka appear the trio of most popular picks for the silverware.

Maybe that sentiment is a handy, no-pressure sort of ally for Faf du Plessis and his men to arrive with: never forget that this format of the game is legendarily fickle because one torrent of savage hitting by a crowd-pleasing batsman is often enough to secure victory for a particular side in a seemingly well-matched contest on paper.

South Africa, looking tactically at sixes and sevens and with certain basics also not stuck to with any resolve, were genuinely humbled in the only full contest of the weather-wrecked three-game roster against the Aussies at Centurion on Friday.

A six-wicket defeat with 30 balls to spare is a heavy setback in this format, and ominously it was the visitors who adapted to the slow, gripping surface infinitely better in all respects.

The Proteas clearly have much remedial work to do, both in training over the next few days and the successive warm-up matches they have at Fatullah on Tuesday and Wednesday against Bangladesh A and the full Pakistan team respectively.

They open their tournament account in Group 1 against the fancied ‘Lankans next Saturday at Chittagong (11:30 our time), before playing the broadly resurgent New Zealand on Monday March 24, a qualifying side on Thursday March 27, and rounding off the pool stage against England on Saturday March 29 – the first two matches look the more formidable of the quartet, as the English are in a state of some flux too.

One hopeful aspect for the Proteas to keep in mind is their strong recent T20 record on slow Asian pitches – within the last year, and with not dissimilar personnel to the squad they will feature at this event, they have seen off both Sri Lanka and Pakistan in away series.

So the possibility of getting things right when it really matters cannot be discounted.

The surrendered Aussie series also featured certain positive elements, like the continued major strides of top-order wunderkind Quinton de Kock in limited-overs international cricket, and Imran Tahir’s decent bowling performance with his leg-spinners and googlies at SuperSport Park on Friday – the latter will be banked upon to grab key middle-period wickets in Bangladesh.

It will also be important for South Africa to have Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel – two bowlers swift, hostile and canny enough to be a handful even on benign surfaces – fully fit by the time the tournament-proper kicks off, as their top-heavy battery of left-arm seamers blew more cold than hot collectively over the last few days.

The other thing the Proteas simply must get right is the positioning in the order of batting kingpin AB de Villiers – he has operated everywhere in the top six over the course of his 52 T20 internationals and perhaps that instability has contributed to his surprisingly moderate batting average of 21.41.

Clean-hitting, often dominating De Villiers has to be employed either at No 3 or 4; he curiously took guard at No 5, behind JP Duminy, on Friday.

Another seasoned batting customer, Hashim Amla, may have failed to come off on both occasions in the T20 mini-series against the Australians, but he was ridiculously asked to open in the seven-over hurricane game at Kingsmead and then got out to a beauty of a delivery from Mitchell Starc at Centurion.

Make no mistake, in Bangladesh Amla’s wristy style and calmness of temperament will be a vital element to SA’s arsenal, even as he strangely still seeks that elusive first half-century in T20 internationals after a personal best of 48 on two occasions.

A bullish tip from this writer is that he will break that particular bogey some time in the next three weeks or so.

One area of unease for the latest World T20 is that the Proteas enter it with a rare lack of top-flight experience in either their coaching or captaincy departments: Russell Domingo and Du Plessis face possibly the most rigorous examination yet of their respective intellectual and motivational credentials.

Domingo sometimes exhibits the body language of someone with not a care in the world which can, of course, be advantageous when circumstances merit it.

But he will also know that people will be ready to judge him much more harshly if South Africa significantly botch this campaign on top of home Test and T20 series reverses to Australia.

Perhaps the Proteas should endeavour not to over-complicate things strategically, letting pre-prepared logic prevail in many instances and realising that they do have a puncher’s chance (alongside so many other nations) with game-breaking surnames like De Villiers, Amla, Steyn and Miller in their midst ...

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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