Cape Town – The one-day international shares of Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander, seriously battle-smart international customers both, may have cranked back up a notch in the wake of the high-scoring fourth ODI against Sri Lanka at Newlands.
Ultimately, the hapless ‘Lankans were well enough beaten on paper again on Tuesday to fall a demoralising 4-0 behind with one to play at SuperSport Park on Friday.
But the 40-run margin of victory on this occasion also didn’t quite reflect the extent to which the tourists made South Africa sweat for protracted periods of their spirited chase of a Faf du Plessis-inspired juggernaut total.
It is pretty unusual for teams to get anywhere close to 300 under lights at the venue, but reaching 327 all out with 11 balls of the reply knock left was a commendable effort by the supposedly travel-weary and beleaguered outfit.
Nor should that very fact have gone unnoticed by the Proteas brains trust – both coaches and selectors – as they begin to weigh up with increasing urgency the needs of the ICC Champions Trophy in England and Wales in early June.
If a team as moderate as the current Sri Lankan one, presently sixth on the rankings and usually walloped during the current bilateral hostilities, could make the SA attack look so popgun at times at Newlands, what price the Proteas being able to keep a more fitting lid on scoring rates against tougher foes on the immediate horizon?
Once again, too, several Sri Lankan batsmen succumbed to infuriating, scatterbrained dismissals largely of their own making … a feature of the series, with the talented, wristy Niroshan Dickwella particularly culpable anew after setting threatening foundations for a really big ‘un.
This was, educatively, the first time in the four contests in which the Proteas didn’t have the luxury of spin wizard Imran Tahir choking the runs in the “middle” period of the tourists’ innings; he conceded 76 here after sporting admirable economy rates within three runs to the over in all of the first three matches.
You don’t want to be too harsh on the relatively greenhorn SA seam arsenal, hardly lacking in potential as individuals, but the whole series – and the Capetonian fixture especially – has also served up certain worrisome hints that they could be in run-leakage trouble collectively against tougher opposition and on tracks that aren’t necessarily familiar or to their liking.
Keep in mind that the Proteas very soon don’t smell home pitches at ODI level again until early next summer, when Bangladesh visit for an all-formats tour in September and October.
Before then, it is five tricky ODIs in New Zealand shortly -- the Black Caps boast an increasingly imperious home record and have just seized back the Chappell-Hadlee Trophy from Australia – then three against England in their own lair immediately before the Champions Trophy kicks off.
Right now, South Africa’s pace attack is fronted by specialist Kagiso Rabada, understandably still a work in progress at ODI level himself, aged 21, but then it is a bit of a toss-up between four bowling all-rounders (Chris Morris, Wayne Parnell, Andile Phehlukwayo and Dwaine Pretorius) who have been given varying workloads against the ‘Lankans so far and generally shown a confusing combination of promise and erratic tendencies.
The long-term injury to Dale Steyn and Kyle Abbott’s “defection” to a Kolpak deal meant a fairly obvious void in experience, and it has shown even against the Sri Lankans.
None of the all-rounders has yet demonstrated a notably regular devotion to economy, as evidenced in the Newlands “fireworks display”: the largely medium-pace Pretorius travelled at close to seven runs an over, Parnell went at 6.32 despite picking up four wickets and at least sticking to his guns through challenging periods for him, and Rabada conceded at above five and a half.
Despite the excited talk around presently injured 20-year-old Lungi Ngidi – remember, he hasn’t played a solitary ODI yet! – the SA line-up in this format glaringly lacks the addition of at least one really seasoned seamer to settle things down, as they say.
In that regard, the imminent – assuming all goes well – return to bowling readiness of Morkel could hardly be better timed, even if he wasn’t ready to be considered for the limited-overs portion of the NZ trip.
He gives a different dimension with his pace and steep bounce, and the fact that he possesses well over 200 caps for his country across the three codes of the game is bound to be an attractive thought to the selectors with the ICC jamboree in mind, assuming that his backs now holds up properly.
But what of Philander? The wily, probing fast-medium bowler has only played twice more at ODI level since the 2015 World Cup, where he briefly became an undeserved “political” hot potato; less than fully fit with a troublesome hamstring, he was pushed into action in the ill-fated semi-final at the expense of Abbott.
Happily firing at full steam again in Tests this summer, Philander’s particular skills still offer inviting possibilities in the 50-overs fold, given the right conditions for his nip-it-away hallmarks.
And the environment on the immediate horizon does look tailor-made for “SuperVern”: he has revelled in New Zealand’s temperate climate before, particularly in the five-day arena, so some purists will rue that he hasn’t been involved in the ODI squad revealed on Wednesday for that undertaking.
A bit Shaun Pollock-like in his ability to provide good control up front in ODIs, Philander is a little more vulnerable to the slog later on, but if he is bowled out before, say, the last 10 overs he could yet offer tight analyses for the country with some activity in the wickets column as well.
Nevertheless, the very Pollock reminded in SuperSport commentary on Tuesday that the Champions Trophy comes relatively early in the English season, when it may well still be damp and overcast for generous times – again, a perfect backdrop for Philander to flourish.
The Cape Cobras stalwart, 31, is also far from the worst to have somewhere in the bottom five of a one-day batting order, as he is well capable of rotating strike and at the very least keeping his wicket intact for a good stint if a more senior figure like a De Villiers or Du Plessis is blazing at the other end.
He has committed to a first-part-of-season contract with Sussex, but it is understood that it would not necessarily preclude him from involvement either in the short series against England or the Champions Trophy itself should the SA selectors want him.
Philander has played 30 ODIs thus far, and taken 41 wickets at 24.04. Just as importantly, his economy rate is 4.62, a statistic that considerably eclipses anyone in the current Proteas ODI pace department …
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