Proteas: Some snags exposed

2014-08-30 22:51
David Miller (AFP)

Cape Town – South Africa’s one-day international batting line-up is a bit like a thrill-ride at the amusement park ... absolutely exhilarating for a while, but then it can all too quickly peter out to a slightly tame finish.

It is one area that may be providing some head-scratching for the brains trust in the six-month lead-up to the next World Cup in Australasia in February and March.

Mostly, the Proteas are in pretty promising fettle, with seven wins from eight ODIs thus far this winter (just one blemish among the three clashes in Sri Lanka) and coach Russell Domingo warranting credit for putting out a stable, appealingly familiar-looking side in key matches.

They have also crept up to joint-second with India at the time of writing – the Indians are in action on Saturday against England at Trent Bridge -- on the ICC rankings with a rating weight of 113 each.

But in the Harare triangular match against hosts Zimbabwe on Friday, there were some seriously heart-stopping moments en route to the eventually comprehensive enough 61-run victory.

That situation, not for the first time, had much to do with issues in the middle- to lower-order batting.

In a nutshell, the Proteas have a truly stellar top five – remember that supreme stroke-player AB de Villiers sat out the latest fixture – that under normal circumstances reads: Hashim Amla, Quinton de Kock, Faf du Plessis, De Villiers and JP Duminy.

At least as things stand, they are all hugely confident, enviable customers in their roles, and when one or more of them comes off in a big way and bats through, South Africa more often than not prosper as a whole.

But speaking of prosper, there will always be sporadic occasions when what Amla described after Friday’s game as a “blowout” takes place ... and Zimbabwe’s off-spinner Prosper Utseya was responsible for one of those as his hat-trick and eventual five-wicket haul wreaked rare havoc with the SA middle-order.

The heavy favourites imploded from a position of 142 at the fall of the first wicket to 163 for six, and were later indebted to a tail-wag from Aaron Phangiso and Imran Tahir to get to a more respectable and ultimately match-winning 231.

According to statistics, the Proteas’ Nos 4-7 between them on Friday made the smallest tally of runs (eight) from those slots in any ODI in the roughly 23-year history of them for South Africa.

Of course two of the victims in that region of the order fell prey to the Utseya hat-trick burst, the luckless Rilee Rossouw (now two ducks in his first two international matches) and David Miller.

At least in the short term, Rossouw will presumably make way again for a returning De Villiers, when the Proteas try to secure successive wins against fierce rivals Australia on Tuesday.

But Miller will again be causing just some semblance of concern: he had been promoted to No 5 ahead of Duminy on Friday, presumably with the aim of trying to get him to prove his ability to build an innings with plenty of time to spare, rather than just play his more traditional role as a big-hitting finisher when a firm scoreboard platform is already in place.

His failure during the near-freakish Utseya stint is hardly the end of the world ... but I believe it was also another sharpish little reminder that when there’s a wobble among the front-end cream of the SA order, those in the middle and at the back of it aren’t the most compelling of characters to be able to thoroughly turn it around.

In other words, from numbers six (Miller’s more customary berth) to 11, proven quality of batsmanship is in relatively short supply and the balance of the team may require a tweak, especially with the World Cup in mind.

While both are fine cricketers and their right to Proteas participation is not being questioned, it is a lingering personal suspicion that Miller and the present No 7, Ryan McLaren, are arguably each a position too high -- something that could come home to roost if, for instance, South Africa are playing a crucial match at the World Cup and they quickly lose three wickets or so on a pitch that has a bit of juice in it upfront.

McLaren’s career ODI stats on the batting front are well less impressive than his bowling ones: from 48 appearances he has accumulated 447 runs at an average of just below 20, with a solitary half-century to his name.

Compare those figures with the current, designated Australian No 7, the veteran, clean-striking wicketkeeper-batsman Brad Haddin: 2,808 runs from 107 matches at close to 32 – there is quite a difference.

Of course the Proteas may well – and not without some justification – simply decide to risk sticking with the status quo in team balance terms, figuring that more often than not their high-calibre top five will do the bulk of the business, whilst they also need to retain good enough bowling depth.

One thing to bear in mind is that someone like Miller, while perhaps still not quite living up to fullest potential at ODI level yet, has shown on the odd occasion before that he can “assemble” an innings rather than just do the wham-bam job in closing overs.

He did it once at his home ground of Kingsmead against Pakistan, registering 67 after South Africa had collapsed to 38 for four when he took to the crease at the start of the 10th over.

The left-hander also spared a few blushes – albeit only temporarily – in the Champions Trophy semi-final against England at The Oval in 2013 when he amassed an unbeaten 56 as the Proteas turned 63 for five into a fractionally less sickly 175 all out before seven-wicket defeat.

South Africa are a considerably better side now than they were then, but I’m sticking to this theory: dreamy top five, dodgy bottom six ...

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing


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