Cape Town – While regular player JP Duminy has been sidelined by injury, South Africa have largely had the excuse to keep postponing the million-dollar debate: how to best balance their team.
Having brushed aside second-tier foes Ireland in very praiseworthy fashion at the World Cup on Tuesday, the Proteas move back across the “ditch” from Canberra to Auckland for Saturday’s next Pool B fixture against stiffer obstacle – at least on paper – Pakistan (03:00 SA time).
But if Duminy is passed fit for a return by then, the left-handed batsman and off-spinner will have to be accommodated ... and that, simultaneously, means the team’s brains trust have got to show their hotly-debated tactical hand after successive matches in which he was a spectator.
We will then know at last whether the intention, ideally for the remainder of the tournament, is to go batting-heavy with seven specialists (risking the fielding of only four recognised bowlers plus Duminy as fifth) or stick to the formula of fielding a Farhaan Behardien type of part-time all-rounder in the vexing No 7 spot and reluctantly omitting one of the batsmen.
The topic has discerning critics – and not just South African ones – pretty divided, and in many ways the confusion was only aggravated as AB de Villiers’s current XI fired on virtually all cylinders in putting away the Irish by 201 runs at Manuka Oval.
For instance, the booming left-handed batsmanship of Rilee Rossouw came to light again in a supplementary capacity against Ireland, as he added an unbeaten 61 to his identical tally of runs against West Indies one match earlier.
This time the main charge, however, was led by Hashim Amla, as his 159 saw him register his highest ODI innings yet, a phenomenon that had also been experienced by captain AB de Villiers (162 not out) against the Caribbean outfit just days earlier.
Faf du Plessis was also in on the run-gluttony against a cowed Irish attack, his own century almost fading into the shadows despite his cool, methodical accumulation. Without seeming to make much noise, he lies fifth on the World Cup run-scoring list at present, with Amla also carrying the SA flag spiritedly in third.
So imperious was Amla at Manuka Oval that he earned the following significant tribute from TV commentator Matthew Hayden, himself once one of the most muscular strikers imaginable: “He hits the ball with as much power and venom as anyone in world cricket.”
Sticking out like a sore thumb amidst the current Proteas revelry at the crease, then, is the ongoing top-order bankruptcy of poor Quinton de Kock: his latest score of one, getting a feather to a decent delivery which so often happens to players already out of nick, means he has compiled only 27 runs from four World Cup innings.
He now looks the most likely candidate for the chop once Duminy is active again -- assuming that De Villiers would be willing to wear the wicketkeeping gloves in conjunction with being a stamina-challenging, bastion of extreme destructiveness as batsman.
De Kock’s best hope of retention, then, is probably South Africa deciding to take the bold option of going down the “seven batsmen” road; this writer gets the sense it is increasingly firmly being considered.
Why else would De Villiers try such an expansive array of bowling options against the Irish, which included fits of duty for himself, Du Plessis and another new mini-presence in Rossouw?
Clearly, the Proteas are weighing up gambling on Duminy soon as full fifth bowler, and just gauging whether anyone else could add acceptable weight if a sixth becomes necessary.
The skipper was reportedly cagey at the after-match press conference, saying the combination would be determined match by match, but he did add pointedly: “You always want your top six, top seven in form ... six, seven and eight win you a lot of games.”
That sounded just a bit like a nod of approval for beefing the batting, even if at the expense of bowling depth.
Of course there are hazards attached to that approach, and former national captain Shaun Pollock is just one with reservations, saying that it could be exposed against quality line-ups if early strikes don’t occur.
On the side of the alternative school of thought, it is not as though Behardien looked anything special himself on the medium-pace front against Ireland, albeit only in two overs – does he really justify a spot with others pushing that bit harder to play regularly?
Also shaping up as an increasing conundrum, although it would not so hugely affect the side’s balance, is whether Kyle Abbott, who grabbed his ODI-best 4/21 on Tuesday and again showed purpose and penetration, warrants being “benched” once Vernon Philander shrugs off his niggles.
The good thing about the Proteas’ greatly improved collective sharpness and hunger of late is that problems in personnel increasingly look of the quite pleasant kind ...*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing