Pakistan v SA
SA’s batting at all-time low?
Colin Ingram (Gallo Images)
Cape Town - The Proteas’ batting at one-day international level may well be at its most fragile since the country’s admission to the format in late 1991.VIDEO: Rob Houwing talks India's Newlands snub
There have been plenty of bumps and scrapes along the way, as happens to all teams, but it is difficult to remember a specific, meaningful period when South Africa’s intended main batsmen have last been so low on authority and confidence in ODIs.
Friday’s surprisingly emphatic loss to Pakistan in Dubai in the second contest of the five-match series - after the bowlers and fielders had again done some inspiring hard yards in bowling out the “home” nation for only 209 - just seemed to confirm how lucky AB de Villiers’s team had been in snatching the first game from the fire two days earlier in Sharjah.
With respective totals of 183 and now 143 thus far, and Pakistan’s generously-stocked and cunning spin department very much to the fore, South Africa look vulnerable in the Emirates to a possible maiden bilateral series defeat to these foes, currently ranked one notch below them in the ICC rankings at sixth.
Some light at the end of the tunnel is the reasonably long turnaround to the third ODI at Abu Dhabi on Wednesday, which improves the chance that Hashim Amla, with apologies to the Rolling Stones, will come to their “emotional rescue” at the top of the order after his hiatus back home for childbirth-related reasons.
There will also be a confirmed return to action for Dale Steyn, deliberately earmarked to get back into the frame, well rested, for the third clash onward.
Strangely, though, the champion Test paceman creates an altogether more pleasant selection headache because the existing staff on the bowling front have been excellent as a unit in the series.
Specialists Morne Morkel, Lonwabo Tsotsobe and Imran Tahir have done their jobs well, whilst lower-order all-rounders Ryan McLaren (particularly) and Wayne Parnell have been mostly convincing in both departments - given the batting crisis higher up, their presence at Nos 7 and 8 has been vital and the tail cannot be fluffed out any further, that is for sure.
Amla, if available on Wednesday, automatically assumes one opening berth, almost certainly putting Colin Ingram out of his misery, and restoring a much-needed left-right element with Graeme Smith up front.
JP Duminy is labouring in the No 3 slot, a situation not helped by the fact that towering Pakistani paceman Mohammad Irfan rather has his number, and probably should return to No 5 just behind captain De Villiers - it is not helping at all, of course, that senior customers like De Villiers and Smith are not exactly in consummate ODI form themselves which only adds to the broader jitters.
The disappointingly unconvincing Faf du Plessis is skating on seriously thin ice; his only salvation may be the fact that the Pakistanis are having a ball against so many left-handed batsmen in the current SA side and he at least takes guard the other way!
A personal view is that his immediate shelf life has run out, though, and the time has come to gamble once more on rookie Quinton de Kock: the 20-year-old averages just 18 after seven ODI knocks, and struggled in Subcontinental conditions in Sri Lanka in mid-year, but he can hardly fare worse, can he?
Sometimes you simply have to learn through adversity, and being dragged out of the comfort zone of Highveld pitches back home.
Assuming all parties are available, this would probably be my recommended top six for the third ODI, in order: Amla, Smith, De Kock, De Villiers, Duminy, Miller.
Although there are still three games to go and, at least on paper, South Africa are very much alive in the series, observers are sure to be watching with increasing interest the Momentum One-Day Cup averages domestically for any signs of new faces coming to the fore at the crease.
It is not so straightforward, as several matches have been blighted by bad weather and the leading run-scorer at present is the Dolphins’ 34-year-old Morne van Wyk who has had international exposure before.
Perhaps the more youthful Stiaan van Zyl, 26, of the table-topping Cape Cobras hasn’t chosen the worst period to be building a head of steam; his 113 against the Knights on Friday came after previous knocks of 52 and 44 in the competition. Er, yes, he is another left-hander, though.
Nevertheless, the Proteas’ batting bag is now very close to a necessary, significant shaking.
They have not even gone past the 250-mark in 10 successive ODIs, or got to 200 in the last three, whilst in the current series against Pakistan nobody in the top seven has yet managed to get to 40 individually with the blade.
The last ODI century by a South African, for the little it is really worth, came when Duminy lashed 150 not out in the once-off game against minnows the Netherlands at Amstelveen in late May ...*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing