Champs Trophy: Proteas XI all but settled

2017-02-13 13:14
Chris Morris (Gallo Images)

Cape Town – South Africa, now the top-ranked team in one-day internationals, are all but a closed shop in terms of their likely “first XI” at the ICC Champions Trophy in the UK in mid-year.

That’s my belief … I confidently venture already that, unless injuries or unexpectedly pronounced form-loss issues create instability in the interim, as many as 10 berths are desperately close to signed and sealed for SA’s tournament opener against Sri Lanka at The Oval on June 3.

Yes, there are eight ODIs (five against New Zealand, three against England, all away) still to negotiate ahead of the multinational jamboree, but in many instances these should turn out to be clashes in which a hatful of established Proteas stars are really just fine-tuning their individual games for the demands of the difficult, fairly compressed and strength-versus-strength Champs Trophy.

What you can do as a starting point is cast eight SA team names in stone, including the entire major stroke-playing department and two outright bowlers in Imran Tahir and Kagiso Rabada.

The Proteas are in the privileged position of knowing that their specialist (top six) batting line-up is as settled as you could probably wish it to ever be.

Hashim Amla, Quinton de Kock, Faf du Plessis, captain AB de Villiers, JP Duminy and David Miller: formidable and adhesive on paper, that group is hard to eclipse for both ability and experience and will be the envy of many other countries.

While on the batting, it is an equally reassuring development that the effective reserve player, Farhaan Behardien, has been showing improved confidence and polish while deputising at No 6 for Miller in the latter part of the series against Sri Lanka as the latter recovers from injury.

Behardien produced successive, up-tempo cameos in “rush hour” from the middle-order at both Newlands (36 not out off 20 balls) and SuperSport Park (32 off 20).

He is not Miller for sheer out-of-the-park explosiveness, and historically does not register as large returns when on song, but looks increasingly assured at last as a scurrying, busy man to have at the other end, for example, when a more blue-chip batsman is still at the crease and prospering.

So that’s the top six (plus Behardien lurking in the broader squad, if not necessarily the XI) sorted.

No 7? Chris Morris, for me, is looking more and more credible for that chore.

While not exactly a proven, mass accumulator of international runs yet, I would argue that of the battery of bowling all-rounders being experimented with by the SA brains trust at present, Morris is the most instinctively suitable for a slot which arguably requires a “long-ball” striker – not too unlike the Albie Morkel of old, perhaps -- in the closing overs.

His bowling, pleasingly aggressive and intense, is beginning to demonstrate better signs of disciplinary consistency, too: he arrived in New Zealand buoyed by a best-ever return (4/31) at Centurion on Friday for both wicket-taking and run-strangulation in a completed 10-over stint.

It was illuminating hearing the Proteas management talk after Friday’s completion of the clean sweep against Sri Lanka of Vernon Philander “not having been considered” for the Black Caps challenge (50-overs portion) because of his ankle impingement issue.

You have to assume that, minus the niggle, Philander would probably have got the nod; he will be a vital member of the SA attack for the Test combat a bit deeper into the tour in conditions tailor-made for his seam trade.

The early-season nature of the Champions Trophy in England and Wales understandably means knowledgeable critics have been singing “SuperVern’s” praises for a pivotal, upfront bowling role at the event – it does seem to make great sense in possibly cool, cloudy weather.

Bowling places for both Tahir, who proudly tops the ODI bowling rankings, and Rabada – albeit just a little off his known best right now -- can be taken for granted.

So that, by my calculation at any rate, leaves just one further position up for grabs, and by the time the immediate lead-up period to the tournament kicks in, hopefully a certain Morne Morkel will be restored to fullest fitness and with decent match-play under his belt after several frustrating months of back-related inactivity.

The lanky, back-of-a-length specialist will pose a major threat, given a clean bill of health, to slightly more versatile customers like Wayne Parnell, Dwaine Pretorius and Andile Phehlukwayo: there can be certain drawbacks to having just too many all-rounders to pick from.

So all of that trio, perhaps, are under special pressure to “deliver” in the Land of the Long White Cloud in the scrap for very limited first-team vacancies, come the ICC bash.

A gut feel tells me that the 20-year-old Phehlukwayo -- a thinking bowler already demonstrating decent mini-bursts of admirable tightness in limited-overs international cricket -- is likeliest obstacle to the battle-wise Morkel recapturing a place in the attack.

The KwaZulu-Natalian, something of a Lance Klusener bowling clone and always keen to muscle it with the willow as well, may well secure his own ticket to the Champs Trophy starting line-up if he prospers in all capacities on first-time exposure to Kiwi surfaces.

 It will be his maiden crack at top-flight international cricket outside of South Africa at all, considering that all 10 ODI caps and three T20 internationals have been on home soil for him thus far.

Strongly likely Proteas team (fitness permitting) for game one at the Champions Trophy: Amla, De Kock, Du Plessis, De Villiers, Duminy, Miller, Morris, Philander, Phehlukwayo/Morkel, Rabada, Tahir.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

Read more on:    proteas  |  morne morkel  |  chris morris  |  cricket


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