Cape Town – The scene is set for a “Super Sunday” series-deciding showdown at Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai (10:00 SA time), with India arguably now boasting a mental edge over South Africa for the fifth one-day international.
The host nation did more than earn a stay of execution by winning Thursday’s fourth contest at Chennai to square up things at 2-2; with the Proteas understandably finding the steamy conditions tough going and not helped by the unbalancing effects of some untimely injuries, India ought to feel a come-from-behind series grab is theirs for the taking.
It is not yet as though the South Africans have unravelled ... far from it, in fact.
What the combat in the engrossing series thus far has highlighted, after all, is the fact that the team winning the toss and taking first strike wins every time, so expect both AB de Villiers and MS Dhoni to watch the lottery of the coin landing on Sunday with unusually special interest.
Most of the games have been closely-fought enough to suggest that the trend could yet be bucked at the Wankhede, so it is not as though the collective shoulders of the team losing the toss should drop too much on the day.
But India will feel with some conviction that a hint of tour fatigue may be taking root at a bad time in the SA ranks, especially among some of the more callow visiting players not as familiar with and attuned to the broad demands of doing battle on the Subcontinent.
They will also be all too aware of the label of psychological fragility that inevitably haunts the SA limited-overs camp – a situation hardly helped by the knowledge that not too many weeks ago the Proteas let slip a 1-0 lead to surrender a shorter series in Bangladesh 2-1.
Thursday, which saw India secure the most convincing victory margin yet in the series of 35 runs, also brought home to roost fears over the way the Proteas XI’s structure would be hamstrung by the forced withdrawal for the final two contests of all-rounder JP Duminy.
For the latest game, the South Africans brought in Chris Morris as his effective replacement and it did nothing, almost inevitably, either on paper or in delivery to alleviate their already-present “long tail” problem.
Morris bowled pluckily enough and a run-out when he had got to nine (including one magical reverse sweep for four) put paid to any ambitions he would have harboured to confirm his credentials as a versatile cricketer.
But it is nevertheless a tall order to expect him to be a truly proficient international No 7 at the click of the fingers, considering that even in domestic one-day cricket his six years of franchise activity have produced only two half-centuries.
In short, he is a potentially useful man to have using the long handle at eight or nine, and probably no higher than that.
Somehow, the Proteas have got to stiffen their batting order (suffering through the current absence of both Duminy and the rehabilitating-at-home Rilee Rossouw) for the decider without compromising their bowling arsenal too severely, so expect additional squad figures like rookie Khaya Zondo and just-arrived Dean Elgar to come into the reckoning for the pressure-cooker clash.
Not helping the SA quest to do the vital business in Mumbai is that regular batsmen Hashim Amla and David Miller – averaging 16 and 13 respectively in the series so far – are under the weather.
Particularly in the case of the normally prolific and ruthlessly consistent Amla, his mini-slump has only piled extra pressure on De Villiers to be the miracle man for his country as often as possible.
The skipper did his level best once again to orchestrate a charge to victory (the target of 300 always looked a taxing one on a turning, ever-worsening surface) with a second personal century in the series, combining his usual pure talent in orthodox stroke-play with dazzling audaciousness and an inventive spirit.
It was a good game for enthusiasts who appreciate the almost unrivalled “wow factor” offered to the current world game by De Villiers and India’s Virat Kohli, as the latter also blazed his way to a three-figure score earlier on.
De Villiers is averaging a touch under 80 over the four matches, and will inevitably be a key figure all over again on Sunday.
The Proteas’ attack, although bravely led in Chennai by strike bowlers Dale Steyn and Kagiso Rabada – they shared six wickets between them and showed durability right to the end of the Indian innings – rued the non-presence of in-form Morne Morkel.
He has been nursing a quad problem and it is unclear whether the lanky paceman will be ready to bolster the side for the big climax.
India have not yet lost to South Africa in three ODI meetings at Wankhede, so that is another hurdle the Proteas have to overcome on Sunday.
But history still beckons invitingly for De Villiers’s footsore and slightly under-stocked outfit, with just one more win earning them the mantle of maiden SA series winners in India in the format.
If they can bag the decider, especially given the growing impediments in their midst, it will be a serious statement of welcome grit.
They have been toe-to-toe competitive all series; it would be a pity if it all came crashing down on Sunday.
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