Cape Town – He may have ended his otherwise luminary career
a little innocuously, but South Africa had a sharp reminder on Tuesday of the value
provided in his halcyon years by versatile Jacques Kallis in one-day
One of the last of the notably dying breed of very genuine
all-rounders, Kallis brought a very obvious balance to the team, enabling a
flexible, horses-for-courses approach in selection as varying pitch conditions
worldwide could be taken into account and the XI shaped accordingly, often
without sacrificing too significant strength either with blade or ball.
Things have understandably, necessarily been a bit more
rigid since he ended his massive, 328-cap contribution to the 50-overs
international format: for all-rounders, the Proteas have one who bats a fair
bit better than he bowls, JP Duminy, and another who is more the other way
around in Ryan McLaren.
But that’s really it for dual-contribution cricketers in the
current “first team” ... and the otherwise emerging, improving side lacks some
collective depth on the batting front as a consequence.
As highlighted on this platform a few days ago, No 6 seems a
little high for supposed power-hitting specialist David Miller -- about whom
there are sure to be some fresh murmurs of concern after another failure -- and
No 7 similarly one rung too lofty for McLaren.
When the Proteas were convincingly beaten in the Harare
triangular by now log-topping Australia on Tuesday, strike bowler Dale Steyn –
ODI batting average 7.92 – was the No 8 and for all his sporadic merriment as a
clean-clubbing boundary seeker over long-on and environs, that is particularly
too high for him on crunch ODI occasions.
The loss by 62 runs, with the avenging Aussies earning a
bonus point into the bargain, only seemed to bear out the concerns previously
expressed by this writer and various other critics that South Africa could be
more routinely in trouble in key clashes if their excellent, proven top five
don’t deliver enough runs between them on a given day.
Here Faf du Plessis, who is fast developing a reputation for
treasuring Australia as his “bunny” team across the formats, was a particularly
lopsided contributor to batting weight in an otherwise lame display at the
crease by the Proteas.
His commanding, confident 126 – his best knock yet either in
ODIs or List A cricket – meant that a miserly 94 runs came from the entire
remainder of the line-up as South Africa were curtailed to 220 all out in
pursuit of 283.
You could say the blossoming Du Plessis has turned out to be
like the proverbial London bus: none for ages and then two virtually behind
After 50 ODIs without a century, he has now registered two in the
space of a few days in his 51st and 53rd, and both against the
fierce foes in yellow.
Captain AB de Villiers insisted afterwards he was not too
concerned about his team’s middle order, but may have had immediate television diplomacy
needs more than anything else in mind as he said it.
Truth be told, you can’t help but fret about this team’s
chances whenever, chasing a stiff target against strong opponents, they are
fairly quickly two or three wickets down.
A solution to the team’s current structural imbalance,
however, is not that easy to offer and coach Russell Domingo and chief selector
Andrew Hudson are doubtless acutely aware of that.
The defeat to George Bailey’s side demonstrated that the
Proteas are rather trapped between a rock and a hard place, because another
worrisome element was the pasting the three quick men – Steyn, McLaren and
Morné Morkel – all took in the “death” phase of the Australian innings.
With a six-hungry Mitchell Marsh to the fore, the side from
Down Under clobbered around 100 runs in their last 10 overs as none of the seasoned
trio could consistently get their lines and/or lengths and changes of pace correct.
As much as it underlined that the Proteas are still short of
at least one cool-headed, appealingly regular “go to” character in that phase, it
reminded that they cannot compromise overall bowling depth – even if the two
specialist spinners chosen were very decent on Tuesday – too severely in
pursuit of a beefed-up batting order.
What they seem to need, especially with the key thought of
the 2015 World Cup in mind, is someone they could perhaps slot in at No 6 just
above Miller (thus bumping him and everyone below him down by one reassuring
rung) who is also capable of regularly chipping in a very minimum of, say, five
overs as a bowler.
Such players – shall we brand them “sort of all-rounders?”
-- don’t fall from the trees, regrettably.
There are no candidates in the current squad – SA will still
make Saturday’s final unless they are thrashed out of sight by Zimbabwe on
Thursday – and outside of it the picture is barely less murky.
Contenders who do come to mind domestically are also
predominantly thirty-somethings who have been tried at ODI level with mixed or
plain unremarkable success levels before.
Thinking longer-term to the Australasian-staged World Cup, it
probably needs to be a batsman who bowls more seam than spin, given that the
pitches for that tournament should generally see the Proteas sufficiently
stocked in slow bowling by one specialist – at this point Imran Tahir? – plus
Duminy’s additional off-spin option.
The only two possibilities for both batting ability and some
medium-paced bowling would seem to be Farhaan Behardien (11 prior ODIs, with
fitful signs of potential) or the 33-year-old veteran Albie Morkel, who gives
the team an additional “Miller” for big-hitting, has plenty more international
experience, but is also susceptible to some tap as a bowler on gun-barrel
straight batting paradises.
Presently injured Vernon Philander is another player whose
batting credentials only get more sparkly, although again the perception of him
is more as specialist bowler.
The jury’s out on whether he could become a
reliable No 6 or 7 sort of factor at ODI level.
Spinning all-rounders who may at least earn some fresh thought
are Justin Ontong and Robin Peterson, albeit 34 and 35 respectively.
One thing the latter has sometimes done in the past is act
as a floating pinch-hitter in the order, depending on circumstance, and he has
always been a determined competitor and sprightly fielder despite his advancing
It may just be decided, of course, that there is no real
room or justification for a bits-and-pieces sort of player along these lines.
But that would still leave the Proteas in their present
mini-predicament, giving wily opponents hope that if they can crack open the top
order fairly cheaply, a domino effect is quite possible ...
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @Rob Houwing