Cape Town – South Africa’s one-day international batting
line-up is a bit like a thrill-ride at the amusement park ... absolutely
exhilarating for a while, but then it can all too quickly peter out to a
slightly tame finish.
It is one area that may be providing some head-scratching for
the brains trust in the six-month lead-up to the next World Cup in Australasia
in February and March.
Mostly, the Proteas are in pretty promising fettle, with seven
wins from eight ODIs thus far this winter (just one blemish among the three
clashes in Sri Lanka) and coach Russell Domingo warranting credit for putting
out a stable, appealingly familiar-looking side in key matches.
They have also crept up to joint-second with India at the
time of writing – the Indians are in action on Saturday against England at
Trent Bridge -- on the ICC rankings with a rating weight of 113 each.
But in the Harare triangular match against hosts Zimbabwe on
Friday, there were some seriously heart-stopping moments en route to the
eventually comprehensive enough 61-run victory.
That situation, not for the first time, had much to do with
issues in the middle- to lower-order batting.
In a nutshell, the Proteas have a truly stellar top five –
remember that supreme stroke-player AB de Villiers sat out the latest fixture –
that under normal circumstances reads: Hashim Amla, Quinton de Kock, Faf du
Plessis, De Villiers and JP Duminy.
At least as things stand, they are all hugely confident,
enviable customers in their roles, and when one or more of them comes off in a
big way and bats through, South Africa more often than not prosper as a whole.
But speaking of prosper, there will always be sporadic
occasions when what Amla described after Friday’s game as a “blowout” takes
place ... and Zimbabwe’s off-spinner Prosper Utseya was responsible for one of
those as his hat-trick and eventual five-wicket haul wreaked rare havoc with
the SA middle-order.
The heavy favourites imploded from a position of 142 at the
fall of the first wicket to 163 for six, and were later indebted to a tail-wag
from Aaron Phangiso and Imran Tahir to get to a more respectable and ultimately
According to www.espncricinfo.com
statistics, the Proteas’ Nos 4-7 between them on Friday made the smallest tally
of runs (eight) from those slots in any ODI in the roughly 23-year history of
them for South Africa.
Of course two of the victims in that region of the order
fell prey to the Utseya hat-trick burst, the luckless Rilee Rossouw (now two
ducks in his first two international matches) and David Miller.
At least in the short term, Rossouw will presumably make way
again for a returning De Villiers, when the Proteas try to secure successive
wins against fierce rivals Australia on Tuesday.
But Miller will again be causing just some semblance of
concern: he had been promoted to No 5 ahead of Duminy on Friday, presumably
with the aim of trying to get him to prove his ability to build an innings with
plenty of time to spare, rather than just play his more traditional role as a
big-hitting finisher when a firm scoreboard platform is already in place.
His failure during the near-freakish Utseya stint is hardly the
end of the world ... but I believe it was also another sharpish little reminder
that when there’s a wobble among the front-end cream of the SA order, those in
the middle and at the back of it aren’t the most compelling of characters to be
able to thoroughly turn it around.
In other words, from numbers six (Miller’s more customary berth)
to 11, proven quality of batsmanship is in relatively short supply and the
balance of the team may require a tweak, especially with the World Cup in mind.
While both are fine cricketers and their right to Proteas
participation is not being questioned, it is a lingering personal suspicion that
Miller and the present No 7, Ryan McLaren, are arguably each a position too
high -- something that could come home to roost if, for instance, South Africa
are playing a crucial match at the World Cup and they quickly lose three
wickets or so on a pitch that has a bit of juice in it upfront.
McLaren’s career ODI stats on the batting front are well
less impressive than his bowling ones: from 48 appearances he has accumulated
447 runs at an average of just below 20, with a solitary half-century to his
Compare those figures with the current, designated
Australian No 7, the veteran, clean-striking wicketkeeper-batsman Brad Haddin:
2,808 runs from 107 matches at close to 32 – there is quite a difference.
Of course the Proteas may well – and not without some
justification – simply decide to risk sticking with the status quo in team
balance terms, figuring that more often than not their high-calibre top five
will do the bulk of the business, whilst they also need to retain good enough
One thing to bear in mind is that someone like Miller, while
perhaps still not quite living up to fullest potential at ODI level yet, has
shown on the odd occasion before that he can “assemble” an innings rather than
just do the wham-bam job in closing overs.
He did it once at his home ground of Kingsmead against
Pakistan, registering 67 after South Africa had collapsed to 38 for four when
he took to the crease at the start of the 10th over.
The left-hander also spared a few blushes – albeit only
temporarily – in the Champions Trophy semi-final against England at The Oval in
2013 when he amassed an unbeaten 56 as the Proteas turned 63 for five into a
fractionally less sickly 175 all out before seven-wicket defeat.
South Africa are a considerably better side now than they
were then, but I’m sticking to this theory: dreamy top five, dodgy bottom six
our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing