Cricket

Proteas stare down barrel

2010-02-22 11:28
Herschelle Gibbs (File)
Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

Cape Town – We must not be deluded by South Africa’s one-run defeat in the first one-day international against India: they were pretty close to being murdered and really should have been.

I fancy they will know it deep down, too.

That they came so remarkably close in Jaipur to what would have been one of the most outrageous smash-and-grabs imaginable, was only because Wayne Parnell and Dale Steyn thrashed about so spiritedly to delay their bloody slaughter in the abattoir, if you like.

Not that I wish to trivialise this splendid rearguard action with the willow: a ninth-wicket stand of 65 in seven-and-a-bit overs takes some doing, and was at least a demonstration of never-say-die spirit in the team.

Paceman Steyn’s blossoming ability to smash an old-fashioned “long ball” – especially straight down the ground – is a virtue to be commended, while Parnell is certainly starting to show just why he was so highly-touted as a genuine all-rounder when he captained the SA U19s.

A sting in the tail is a very handy device in ODIs, and not too long ago it was in short supply for South Africa when Steyn sported far less confidence with the bat and around him, with due respect, were such bunnies as Makhaya Ntini and Charl Langeveldt.

But the Steyn-Parnell near-fairytale on Sunday was precisely that: something you cannot rely on every day. Or even every few weeks or months.

Without it, the Proteas would have been hung, drawn and quartered in Jaipur, especially once they had receded badly to 180 for seven chasing a stiff 299 to win, and might have been bundled out a horrible 100 runs shy had India turned the screws better.

Indeed, with poor shot selection a notable virus in the upper order, I suspected South Africa were right out of it even when they lost their fourth wicket at 134, because I was never comfortable with the balance of the side for the series opener – it always looked specialist batting-light, to me.

Nobody doubts the “finishing” powers of players like Mark Boucher and Albie Morkel, but when a bit of rebuilding is simultaneously required in a judicious dose, you do feel the Proteas will be up against it in situations like Sunday’s.

I also don’t like a Herschelle Gibbs-Loots Bosman opening combination at all: no concerns if it were for a Twenty20 international, but the demands of the 50-over arena are different -- crucially more temperate.

When one of these blasters got out after a suitably high-octane start, the other needed to just knuckle down a tad. That didn’t happen, so the tourists were all too quickly backs to the wall instead of pushing forward coolly.

You do not want to curb either player’s natural cavalier instincts; Gibbs, in particular, has been there and done that in terms of weighty scores in conventional ODIs – 21 centuries tells you plenty – but I do not believe you can accommodate both in the same XI.

I have long argued that Bosman is a T20 trump-card, and that’s the sum of it. (Good on him if he proves me wrong, of course.)

In the unfortunate absence of Graeme Smith – and naturally that is going to be felt, although India are missing key components too -- Test juggernaut Hashim Amla must be restored to the top-order at Gwalior on Wednesday with due haste, preferably partnering Gibbs at the helm.

Some stability and street-smartness is essential, with too much of it being left at Jaipur in the hands of that incredible, ageless cricketer Jacques Kallis.

Kallis showed several colleagues how to do it with the ball, as well, which is both a blessing (read: his own sparkling all-round form) and concern.

The worry is that the Proteas presently field a few “passengers” – liabilities, even? – among their bowling arsenal.

Parnell remains more expensive than many might like as a bowler; he is travelling at exactly six-to-the-over in ODIs although his strike rate is pretty good and you must expect some “tap” treatment against a youngster who has only just completed his 10th match in the format, remember.

Meanwhile Albie Morkel (although he got a “roughie” at the crease) continues to take a bit too much of a pounding, similarly, with his medium-pacers – he might well have conceded 70 to 75 runs on Sunday had he been able to complete a full quota of 10 overs – and off-spinner Johan Botha also labours in this post-doosra era for him.

So the SA one-day side is, I’m afraid, a bit of a work in progress once again, and there is much head-scratching for Corrie van Zyl and company to do.

I am not normally renowned as a prophet of doom but right now I harbour fear that 3-0 to India is a slightly likelier outcome to the series than 2-1 to South Africa, despite the Proteas’ cheeky near jail-break in Jaipur …

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