India in SA

Proteas’ clouds start to lift

2011-01-23 21:00
Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

Cape Town – Imperfections aplenty still seep into their game like a niggly virus, but at least South Africa are moving in the right direction ahead of the World Cup.

To come from 2-1 down and pip second-ranked world power India 3-2 in a one-day series has got to be a pretty heartening state of affairs with the premier tournament less than a month away.

Consider also that the Proteas’ three victories were all by fairly comfortable margins, whereas India’s two came in nail-biters that might just as easily have gone the other way, so 5-0 to the host nation was a lot closer to reality than some may have realised.

But captain Graeme Smith would probably be the first to acknowledge, nevertheless, that that would have been a deeply deceptive outcome.

This was an Indian side missing at least three and perhaps even four key elements, all of whom will return to duty for the global extravaganza on infinitely more desirable terrain for them, so the tourists’  level of competitiveness and never-say-die spirit - evident to the bitter end at overcast Centurion on Sunday - would have been a tonic despite this series surrender.

South Africa, for their part, were missing only one senior combatant in the shape of Jacques Kallis, although the peerless allrounder’s almost certain availability on the Subcontinent will automatically boost his country’s competence and strategic shape by some 15 to 20 percent.

Restore Kallis to the fulcrum of the batting order and with a click of the fingers South Africa suddenly have back at their disposal a calm dominator in the mould of Hashim Amla, the century-making bedrock of the innings once more in the decisive match at SuperSport Park.

Not only that, but the now firmly-entrenched  and largely impressive Proteas seam trio – Morné Morkel, Dale Steyn and Lonwabo Tsotsobe – morphs most comfortingly into a quartet as Kallis restores his own skills, carved out over the course of 307 ODIs, to the party.

That is an important consideration because you still suspect that deep down South Africa back their pacemen to be the key “deliverymen” in the bowling department, even in Asian conditions that will often stunt their potential for genuine, bruising menace.

Remember that the Proteas will not be playing Subcontinental teams all the time at the World Cup, and thus not necessarily always on slow dustbowls: there may well be occasions when the faster men do come gleefully into their own.

And with the South Africans still likely to be in a position to field at least “two and a half” spinners – specialists like Johan Botha and Robin Peterson plus an occasional chip-in component like JP Duminy – they are moving quite quickly to a situation where all bowling bases are covered for the climate they will face at CWC 2011.

Morkel has had an especially eye-opening couple of weeks against India, aptly named player of the series and being described more than once by Indian commentator Ravi Shastri on Sunday as a “relentless” source of venom.

Co-pundit Shaun Pollock weighed in with an equally astute sixpence on the tall Titans tearaway: “At six foot five you’re going to be useful anywhere you play in the world.”

Of course the Proteas remain an imperfect product and occasionally glaringly so - nobody in their camp would be short-sighted enough to dispute that.

If they were that machine purring at blissful 100 percent right now, it would be arguably be more of a worry, because the only way would be down.

I still sensed a phenomenon on Sunday that has stalked both the country’s Test and one-day teams for a couple of years; call it a foot-off-the-pedal syndrome, if you like.

It came to light on two occasions at Centurion: first when the Proteas resumed their innings after a rain delay, admittedly with the unsettling situation of four overs suddenly being lopped off their intended “slog” period with heaps of wickets in hand.

Again we saw signs that they may come to rue, at some point during the World Cup, the absence of a mercurial boundary-striker in the lower middle-order as they instead piddled around like a nervous puppy and came unacceptably close to being bowled out inside their revised quota of overs.

The other release of a promising stranglehold, of course, came when India were somehow allowed to get absurdly close to a sniff of victory from a dead-and-buried 119 for eight in pursuit of 268.

There were some elements of panic and sloppiness in the field as Yusuf Pathan, in particular, and Zaheer Khan posted a freakish 100 for the ninth wicket in fewer than 13 overs.

In the Proteas’ defence, there are times when it is well-nigh impossible to shut the sluices in a one-day encounter while a batsman keeps exploiting the sweet spot on his willow like Pathan did.

But at least India boast in their lineup somebody at No 7 who is capable of bludgeoning 105 off 70 balls.

South Africa’s World Cup squad almost certainly won’t, and they may have to resign themselves to working around this disadvantage as determinedly and inventively as they possibly can.

Events of the last few days show that this Proteas team, for all its ongoing blemishes, has a collective heart and some individuals as gifted as any on the planet.

They may not win the World Cup, but it seems they’re bracing themselves for a very brave crack ...

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