Cape Town – Hello … so there CAN be some sting in the South African tail.
Whilst you have to be cautious not to get carried away by one revitalising win after a trio of really thumping losses, some seeds of hope came to the fore at the Wanderers on Saturday night relating to the Proteas’ gradual preparation for the 2019 World Cup.
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That tournament in England is only some 15 months away, and just one disturbing development in the early part of the ongoing one-day international series against India had been the general fallibility of the host nation’s middle- and lower-order batting.
We know that many of the performance-related issues at the front end will almost automatically clear up when the likes of highly proven customers Faf du Plessis and Quinton de Kock are fit again soon.
But the waters had been looking a little murkier from roughly No 5 in the order downward, the Proteas still struggling to squeeze consistent excellence out of JP Duminy and David Miller -- despite their far from inconsiderable levels of experience by now -- and the depth of “finishing” firepower below them not looking too rosy either.
All of that made events in a dramatic, weather-curtailed fourth ODI at the Bullring, where South Africa kept the (still serious) threat of series surrender at bay for at least a couple more days, freshly heartening.
Of course there is a case for arguing that India, previously so dominant over the first three contests, got a little unlucky in Johannesburg, where their mastery came to a shuddering halt in a five-wicket reverse by Duckworth/Lewis method.
They were on course for a gigantic total, batting first in the day/nighter, when lightning forced the players from the middle for a fairly protracted period, and crucially didn’t fully recapture their Shikhar Dhawan and Virat Kohli-led lustre when play finally resumed.
Nevertheless, 290 would still have been a formidable target for the hitherto fragile SA batting line-up to chase, and the whole character of their innings changed – firmly in their favour, I’d say – when it became known that the revised target would become 202 from 28 overs.
It transformed the clash into more of a Twenty20-type of fixture, and the adjustment seemed to unsettle the Indians a little and only galvanise the Proteas into believing a stay of execution in the series was genuinely “on”.
More assertive in the top-order this time as well, South Africa reserved some of their most pulsating cricket for the high-pressure overs toward the back end of the match when all of Miller and markedly more greenhorn characters Heinrich Klaasen and Andile Phehlukwayo batted with the sort of brazen audacity and intent that took any possibilities of trepidation right out of the equation in a matter of minutes.
With the Wanderers crowd basking in an orgy of either smouldering six-hitting or some delightfully cheeky reverse hits and other forms of constructive unorthodoxy, the boot transferred, as if in a jiffy, to the other foot in terms of the Indian wrist-spinners’ impact on the series thus far.
From seemingly unplayable at Kingsmead, Centurion and then Newlands, Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal suddenly looked as though they had been infected with a serious dose of the yips, sailing for eight and a half and twelve and a half runs per over respectively as the Proteas muscled their way home with all of 15 balls to spare.
Phehlukwayo was a veritable tornado in his impromptu promotion to the No 7 position on the night, turning an apparent nail-biter into a much less angst-laden finish than that with his five-ball, almost Adrian Kuiper-like 23 not out including three “maximums” that sent the pink-day crowd into ecstasy.
The all-rounder has some ongoing imperfections as an international cricketer – you’d totally expect that at age 21 – but this was an innings encouragingly not unlike his 42 not out against Australia in hometown Durban last season for sheer explosiveness.
Then, he helped century-maker Miller post a match-winning, unbeaten century stand in fewer than 12 overs en route to a steep target of 372.
The sturdy Phehlukwayo clearly has a decent amount of ice in his veins temperamentally, and when he gets that front foot decisively forward for lofted straight and leg-side drives, the ball is well capable of leaving the stadium precinct.
Meanwhile Titans wicketkeeper Klaasen, in just his second ODI, showed off a pleasing array of innovative skills, to accompany his own obvious power.
His 43 not out at a strike rate of nearly 160 sent out an early message that, regardless of when De Kock returns to assume the glovework and a place as an opener, Klaasen could prove a very welcome extra option as a business-end-of-the-innings batsman, putting some heat on various incumbents in the middle slots once the Proteas have a full house of fit batsmen to pick from.
SA continue their bid to claw back a share of the series when the fifth ODI is contested at St George’s Park on Tuesday.
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