Where Proteas still fall short

2014-10-30 13:16
Farhaan Behardien (Gallo Images)

Cape Town – Wanted: a batsman of top-six standard who can also be relied upon for five or more overs of reasonable seam fare.

That is the possible need I believe the otherwise fast-shaping South African one-day international side still has in the quest to be a major force at the World Cup in February.

The Proteas, under the deft command of coach Russell Domingo and captain AB de Villiers, have stealthily moved to pole position on the ODI rankings just a few months out from the Australasian-staged event.

They are, in short, firing on most cylinders, winning matches and series regularly, and have no reason to approach the five-match ODI away series against fierce rivals the Aussies themselves during November with trepidation.

Very few berths are still up for grabs in the ideal Proteas “first team” and it is hard to differ much with former national captain and SuperSport critic Kepler Wessels when he suggests they may already feel this is the best XI to put out at the event: Amla, De Kock, Du Plessis, De Villiers, Duminy, Miller, McLaren, Philander, Steyn, Morkel, Tahir.

It is undoubtedly a line-up that possesses formidable top-end batting strength, and plentiful bowling depth with a four-strong arsenal, and then spin options from the impressively consistent Imran Tahir plus JP Duminy.

I don’t deny that those players could get the job done – yes, I said it: even get that major-tournament monkey off the back!

But if there’s one area that steadfastly continues to bother me more deeply than it seems to others, it is the batting berths around six and seven, where David Miller and Ryan McLaren, to me, still seem far better suited to seven and eight respectively.

As presently constituted, South Africa remain likelier to start innings better than they finish them; there just isn’t enough proven oomph or reliability from No 6 down to feel confident that the Proteas can routinely retain or beef up their tempo in the key closing overs of their knock, whether it is in a chase or in setting a target.

I suspect the brains trust are figuring that if the pitches are suitably good and true at the World Cup, one of the front-line batsmen – someone like an on-song De Villiers in particular -- can be trusted to bat through, thus greatly watering down the need for dedicated “finishers” in the lower regions of the order.

Big bomber Miller continues to under-deliver at the international crease, despite his known pyrotechnical abilities in such environments as the Indian Premier League and domestic limited-overs cricket – his struggle is just one reason why I have ongoing fears over the batting depth.

The KwaZulu-Natalian is still worth persevering with – though another sub-standard showing Down Under in November may ring more serious alarm bells – because of how destructive we know he can be as a long-ball striker, and also due to the regrettable reality that there aren’t too many like him in the middle- to lower-order these days.

So the pressure on Miller to deliver solid scores at a rollicking rate of knots is immense; he won’t come off every time although it also needs to start becoming more often, doesn’t it?

I just feel he would benefit, if it could be made feasible, from a tactical shift one notch down to No 7.

To facilitate it, you would obviously have to shelve a seamer – one of Ryan McLaren or Vernon Philander, most likely – but that is where my theory about a batsman who can bowl acceptable medium pace (perhaps a half-dose, shared with JP Duminy’s off-spin for a full 10-over quota between them?) comes into play.

Now that Jacques Kallis has quit, none of the current Proteas specialist front six batsmen bowl seam (though De Villiers enterprisingly had a little stab at Mount Maunganui, with some success) and that is where the Aussies will have a minor edge during the looming ODIs – both Shane Watson and Mitchell Marsh can be quite comfortably called to duty with the ball if necessary.

It is for that reason that the form of Farhaan Behardien, an experienced cricketer who is also a very sprightly fielder, during the three-game Twenty20 series immediately preceding the ODIs next month, ought to be monitored with some interest.

The busy-style Titans batsman enters the T20s off solid recent form in the Momentum One Day Cup, with successive unbeaten knocks of 62 and 41.

He has previously played 11 ODIs and 13 T20 internationals for the Proteas, often in dominant team efforts where he hasn’t really had best opportunities to exhibit his versatile skills ... I say versatile because his right-arm seam fare, the extra string to his bow, arguably does offer certain possibilities in the 50-overs international landscape.

Admittedly he is probably vulnerable to assault by big-name stroke-players on faster, gun-barrel straight surfaces, but on slow, grippy and fractionally seaming ones he can come into his own with his ability to take pace off the ball – a smart cameo of 6-0-19-3 against Sri Lanka once at Pallekele comes to mind.

Remember that some of South Africa’s World Cup matches will take place in the cooler climes of New Zealand, where dibbly-dobbers roughly of the Behardien kind can thrive to a surprising degree at times.

And if you can get some overs out of him to ensure that the overall seam arsenal isn’t too badly compromised, wouldn’t you agree that a line-up like this offers slightly better assurance for batting depth?: Amla, De Kock, Du Plessis, De Villiers, Duminy, Behardien, Miller, McLaren (or Philander), Steyn, Morkel, Tahir.

I’m not trumpeting it as a cast-in-stone solution, or for every match, but it may be one way of eliminating the “back-end fizzle” that has become a bit too commonplace in Proteas’ ODI innings ... and which might yet prove costly on some red-letter occasion down the line.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing


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