Cape Town – It would be grossly unfair and unreasonable to
single out his direct replacement on the day, Vernon Philander, as the central
cause of the Proteas’ seventh successive failure to sample a World Cup final.
In fact, put such ignoramuses canvassing the idea back in
the hole where they belong.
South Africa didn’t lose an epic, great-advertisement
limited-overs contest to New Zealand because of one man: watch the semi-final thriller
from scratch and you will be reminded of a vast variety of flashpoints during
its see-sawing course that affected the way it finally went with just a ball to
Besides, Philander has been a yeoman element of the broader
national cricket cause for several years and has inflicted plenty of
particularly telling misery on the Black Caps – albeit more often at Test level
But yes, those lamenting the non-selection of an in-form
Kyle Abbott at heaving Eden Park on Tuesday have a pretty powerful point
In an ideal world and given the slightly soggy conditions,
this match cried out for the presence of both ace seamers to bolster the SA
cause, but we also know that from a balance point of view, assembling the XI is
a dreadfully complex matter given the absence of a fully-fledged all-rounder.
No matter how you structure it, the side will look top-heavy
one way, whether it is in batting or bowling.
On Tuesday the team’s brains trust, not unsurprisingly or
without merit, decided to stick to the method that earned the rip-roaring
slaughter of Sri Lanka in the quarters, by empowering JP Duminy as fifth bowler
and thus fielding only four specialists in that area.
Proven stalwarts Morne Morkel and Dale Steyn were never
going to miss out, despite the fact that the latter has had a sub-standard
tournament by his standards and regrettably stayed in that strange vein in
Auckland, and nor was the consistently dangerous main spinner Imran Tahir.
So it came down to a straight shootout between Philander and
Abbott for the one additional pace vacancy.
Beforehand, it is probably accurate to say most observers,
either South African or neutral, believed the Proteas would (and should) not
tamper with the gleaming furniture from the ‘Lankan demolition job.
The old but eternally apt cliché of “don’t fiddle with a
winning side” would have come quite dazzlingly to mind.
But in their wisdom, the Proteas’ strategists, including
whoever made the final call, opted to pull Abbott, fresh from an incisive role
at Sydney Cricket Ground less than a week earlier and seemingly growing in both
stature and heart, and reinstate Philander, who has had a frustratingly stop-start
tournament through injury.
Short of a gallop, his “loosener” over of the New Zealand
chase was marked by 14 runs coming from the smoking blade of Brendon McCullum,
plus another four given up to byes as his normally metronomic good length
deserted him – he kept dropping it inexplicably short – and the Black Caps were
off to a collectively spine-stiffening flier.
Again, don’t single out Philander for special crimes up
front: strike partner Steyn’s first three overs sailed for a rarely grotesque
39 runs, remember.
But it is still a cold fact that from very early on, certain
intended primary Proteas bowlers were “travelling” – though Morkel and Tahir
were again splendid -- and that put enormous pressure on the entire,
slimly-stocked attack for much of the remainder of the match.
The one thing you can say about Abbott is that due to his
superior pace, he will often be less prone than Philander to a walloping over
the ropes on a ground with short boundaries if he happens to get his length well
off the mark.
Every now and then on the throbbing, often chaotic night,
Philander was able to go agonisingly past the outside edge with a peach of a
delivery – the kind of fare we can so often take for granted when he is
But it is also clear he is not quite at that desired level,
as evidenced by his failure to see out the game on the park (even if perhaps
there’ll be some indignant spin from the camp suggesting his shortened presence
in the field was unrelated to any existing niggles?).
In an unbearably tense finish, with Johannesburg-born Grant
Elliott the unlikely Black Caps man of the hour, Proteas skipper AB de Villiers
– who gave everything and more personally, despite moderate illness -- may also
have rued not being able to summon the Dolphins favourite Abbott for a dose of
While not fully proven yet for his coolness in such
circumstances at the highest level, he is probably the nearest thing in the
15-man squad to a willing specialist in that unenviable area of responsibility.
We will never know whether Abbott would have shone in the
semi; it is entirely possible he would have had angst-laden moments as much as
any colleague with the greasy white ball.
So it would also be presumptuous to submit this was a
selection booboo by the Proteas of huge similarity to the controversial 1996
decision not to field Allan Donald on a flat Karachi pitch for the CWC quarter-final
against West Indies.
On that occasion, South Africa copped it decisively from
Brian Lara, and even White Lightning might not have been spared the
But all signs before this crunch fixture of 2015 pointed to
Abbott being near-undroppable, as he increasingly cemented a slot and oozed
Instead, South Africa messed with the team-shape mojo.
Right or wrong? We can argue on that score until the cows
come home (unless they’re enjoying the grassy meadow too much, of course).
But we will, and we’re allowed to, after a game decided by the
margin of a lone hair on someone’s littlest toe ...
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