Proteas need extra ‘all-rounder’

2014-09-02 22:01
Russell Domingo (Gallo)

Cape Town – He may have ended his otherwise luminary career a little innocuously, but South Africa had a sharp reminder on Tuesday of the value provided in his halcyon years by versatile Jacques Kallis in one-day internationals.

One of the last of the notably dying breed of very genuine all-rounders, Kallis brought a very obvious balance to the team, enabling a flexible, horses-for-courses approach in selection as varying pitch conditions worldwide could be taken into account and the XI shaped accordingly, often without sacrificing too significant strength either with blade or ball.

Things have understandably, necessarily been a bit more rigid since he ended his massive, 328-cap contribution to the 50-overs international format: for all-rounders, the Proteas have one who bats a fair bit better than he bowls, JP Duminy, and another who is more the other way around in Ryan McLaren.

But that’s really it for dual-contribution cricketers in the current “first team” ... and the otherwise emerging, improving side lacks some collective depth on the batting front as a consequence.

As highlighted on this platform a few days ago, No 6 seems a little high for supposed power-hitting specialist David Miller -- about whom there are sure to be some fresh murmurs of concern after another failure -- and No 7 similarly one rung too lofty for McLaren.

When the Proteas were convincingly beaten in the Harare triangular by now log-topping Australia on Tuesday, strike bowler Dale Steyn – ODI batting average 7.92 – was the No 8 and for all his sporadic merriment as a clean-clubbing boundary seeker over long-on and environs, that is particularly too high for him on crunch ODI occasions.

The loss by 62 runs, with the avenging Aussies earning a bonus point into the bargain, only seemed to bear out the concerns previously expressed by this writer and various other critics that South Africa could be more routinely in trouble in key clashes if their excellent, proven top five don’t deliver enough runs between them on a given day.

Here Faf du Plessis, who is fast developing a reputation for treasuring Australia as his “bunny” team across the formats, was a particularly lopsided contributor to batting weight in an otherwise lame display at the crease by the Proteas.

His commanding, confident 126 – his best knock yet either in ODIs or List A cricket – meant that a miserly 94 runs came from the entire remainder of the line-up as South Africa were curtailed to 220 all out in pursuit of 283.

You could say the blossoming Du Plessis has turned out to be like the proverbial London bus: none for ages and then two virtually behind each other.

After 50 ODIs without a century, he has now registered two in the space of a few days in his 51st and 53rd, and both against the fierce foes in yellow.

Captain AB de Villiers insisted afterwards he was not too concerned about his team’s middle order, but may have had immediate television diplomacy needs more than anything else in mind as he said it.

Truth be told, you can’t help but fret about this team’s chances whenever, chasing a stiff target against strong opponents, they are fairly quickly two or three wickets down.

A solution to the team’s current structural imbalance, however, is not that easy to offer and coach Russell Domingo and chief selector Andrew Hudson are doubtless acutely aware of that.

The defeat to George Bailey’s side demonstrated that the Proteas are rather trapped between a rock and a hard place, because another worrisome element was the pasting the three quick men – Steyn, McLaren and Morné Morkel – all took in the “death” phase of the Australian innings.

With a six-hungry Mitchell Marsh to the fore, the side from Down Under clobbered around 100 runs in their last 10 overs as none of the seasoned trio could consistently get their lines and/or lengths and changes of pace correct.

As much as it underlined that the Proteas are still short of at least one cool-headed, appealingly regular “go to” character in that phase, it reminded that they cannot compromise overall bowling depth – even if the two specialist spinners chosen were very decent on Tuesday – too severely in pursuit of a beefed-up batting order.

What they seem to need, especially with the key thought of the 2015 World Cup in mind, is someone they could perhaps slot in at No 6 just above Miller (thus bumping him and everyone below him down by one reassuring rung) who is also capable of regularly chipping in a very minimum of, say, five overs as a bowler.

Such players – shall we brand them “sort of all-rounders?” -- don’t fall from the trees, regrettably.

There are no candidates in the current squad – SA will still make Saturday’s final unless they are thrashed out of sight by Zimbabwe on Thursday – and outside of it the picture is barely less murky.

Contenders who do come to mind domestically are also predominantly thirty-somethings who have been tried at ODI level with mixed or plain unremarkable success levels before.

Thinking longer-term to the Australasian-staged World Cup, it probably needs to be a batsman who bowls more seam than spin, given that the pitches for that tournament should generally see the Proteas sufficiently stocked in slow bowling by one specialist – at this point Imran Tahir? – plus Duminy’s additional off-spin option.

The only two possibilities for both batting ability and some medium-paced bowling would seem to be Farhaan Behardien (11 prior ODIs, with fitful signs of potential) or the 33-year-old veteran Albie Morkel, who gives the team an additional “Miller” for big-hitting, has plenty more international experience, but is also susceptible to some tap as a bowler on gun-barrel straight batting paradises.

Presently injured Vernon Philander is another player whose batting credentials only get more sparkly, although again the perception of him is more as specialist bowler.

The jury’s out on whether he could become a reliable No 6 or 7 sort of factor at ODI level.

Spinning all-rounders who may at least earn some fresh thought are Justin Ontong and Robin Peterson, albeit 34 and 35 respectively.

One thing the latter has sometimes done in the past is act as a floating pinch-hitter in the order, depending on circumstance, and he has always been a determined competitor and sprightly fielder despite his advancing years.

It may just be decided, of course, that there is no real room or justification for a bits-and-pieces sort of player along these lines.

But that would still leave the Proteas in their present mini-predicament, giving wily opponents hope that if they can crack open the top order fairly cheaply, a domino effect is quite possible ...

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @Rob Houwing


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