SA in West Indies
Proteas make some progress
Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Hashim Amla (Gallo Images)
Cape Town – Let’s call it a “three steps forward and one step back” kind of series.
South Africa are by no means a consistently purring machine in limited-overs cricket again, and hopefully they fully realise that. There remains enormous graft and analysis to be done ahead of the 2011 World Cup.
But first some credit where it is warranted: whatever the shortcomings of the current West Indies side, a 5-0 sweep of the ODI series, coming on top of a Twenty20 international double -- for a seven-out-of-seven tour record -- still takes some doing.
We can also put the ODI feat in some illuminating context: just over a year ago an England side beginning to show promising new buds, and later to reveal even better mettle in instant cricket, had to come from 2-1 down in the Caribbean for a hard-earned 3-2 outcome against the nucleus of the team Graeme Smith’s charges so solidly trounced.
So the Proteas are back on the correct sort of curve at an opportune time, and after looking like a rag-tag bunch at the ICC World Twenty20 they are at least busy regaining some purpose in the 50-overs format.
Smith himself copped strong public abuse after the global get-together and, in truth, it was not his finest couple of weeks either as a leader or player.
A little worryingly, he has not subsequently regained his own batting rhythm by any stretch of the imagination – 119 runs in the latest ODI series from five completed knocks at 23.80 tells a pretty stark tale – but at least we know for sure that he still “has the dressing room”, as they say.
In this series he did some clever, calculated little strategic things that not everybody might notice – like knowing how to winkle out certain West Indies batsmen through shrewd deployment of specific bowlers and associated field placements – and he was sometimes just enterprising rather than absurdly enterprising, which had been a downfall of his World T20 recipe.
Smith will be as pleased as anyone that the tour now moves into Test mode, where he will have better scope to banish his batting rust by knuckling down a bit rather than having to consciously force the tempo all the time.
There were a few tight games in the ODI series, but the very fact that South Africa won each time is a confidence-booster throughout the ranks.
In Roseau, for instance, they first defended a modest 224 quite convincingly, and then chased down 303 themselves, by contrast, only two days later.
This was very much an experimental series for Corrie van Zyl and company, in conditions handily close to those they will experience at the World Cup on the Subcontinent, and the team-makeup jigsaw remains incomplete in some areas -- that fact must not be overlooked.
For one thing, there was a dangerously lopsided reliance on the Proteas’ “two, three and four” for beefy scores – respectively Hashim Amla, so rightly the player of the series, Jacques Kallis and AB de Villiers.
Too often, the batsmen below them were palpably unable to build on admirable momentum and that is - or should be - a major area of ongoing concern.
There were some signs that JP Duminy, after many months of woe, is gradually getting his game together as he ended the series with a mini-flourish of 32 not out and 51.
Still, he faced a total of 113 balls for those runs with just two boundaries, thus still exhibiting signs of personal anxiety.
It was a shame that youthful David Miller missed the final game through injury, although we did see good enough evidence of a middle-order “accelerator” in the making.
Sorry, though, the South African tail remains too long! Against better opponents in red-letter matches, they will probably not get away with Johan Botha at seven, gutsy trench-fighter though he is, and Ryan McLaren at eight.
In an ideal world – and how they get there is obviously a key issue of team “balance” – the Proteas would better be served with players like these one rung lower respectively, and there is little doubt in my own mind that Albie Morkel’s clean striking is required anew somewhere around the No 7 slot.
Various of the South African seamers had good rather than very good ODI campaigns in the West Indies, so the situation on that front remains fairly fluid.
There were some frustrating occasions when, for instance, even that veteran strangler Charl Langeveldt would bowl a few great “dots” and then spoil it all with a full toss unceremoniously slapped to, or over, the fence.
But the last game did give Roelof van der Merwe a chance to regain some pride after an awkward few months for the left-arm spinner.
He bowled a wonderfully tight stint in the Port of Spain thriller on Thursday, marked by deft variations of flight, pace and length, and also bludgeoned two priceless boundaries when the South African chase appeared to be floundering.
Perhaps this supposed bulldog has his bite back.
But then it is something you might begin to suspect, while not getting too carried away with glee, of the whole Proteas one-day side …The 5-0 winning Proteas (Gallo Images)