Should Proteas ease off on all-rounders?

2019-03-06 14:09
Ottis Gibson
Ottis Gibson (Gallo Images)

Cape Town - To borrow a cycling analogy, nobody seems to be breaking profoundly from the peloton when it comes to the various all-rounders pressing for World Cup berths in the Proteas squad.

It raises the significant question, then, of whether the primary brains trust - head coach Ottis Gibson and the selection panel - should keep their versatile customers to a relative minimum when they put together the increasingly tricky 15-strong party required for the tournament in the UK from late May.

Think about it: frontline bowling options are pleasingly vast and impressive, both when it comes to pace and spin, and it is hardly a secret that Gibson loves a meatily-stocked attack - some would say to the substantial detriment of batting depth.

Kagiso Rabada, Dale Steyn, Lungi Ngidi, Imran Tahir and Tabraiz Shamsi: just those already look like near-definite picks on the out-and-out bowling front (Shamsi as back-up to Tahir because of the belief that “mystery spin” could play a major role at the event).

But a real bun-fight is developing for the major batting berths, with some suggestions at this stage that the Proteas will earmark only seven slots for that purpose.

Do the quick maths and you should work out that there will one unlucky customer, under that formula, from the following eight (naturally a few are certainties anyway): Captain Faf du Plessis, Quinton de Kock, who should also be the lone dedicated wicketkeeper, Hashim Amla, Reeza Hendricks, Rassie van der Dussen, David Miller, JP Duminy and Aiden Markram.

The last-named player, left out of the first three one-day internationals against current bilateral opponents Sri Lanka, is the talk of the moment following his blistering pair of domestic Momentum One-Day Cup knocks for the Titans over the last few days: 169 against the Cape Cobras from the middle order, and then 139 against the Warriors from the top.

But if he is recalled, both for the closing two ODIs against the ‘Lankans and then also CWC 2019, someone from the remainder of that group is endangered if there is to be a one-batsman cull.

Some mystery, for example, surrounds the absence of veteran great Amla from the initial part of the Sri Lankan series: he has been under-performing quite glaringly by his enormous standards for a long time, and is clearly a worry.

But it would still be a massive call if, for example, he was to be made the stay-at-home victim: you don’t summarily chuck away 174 caps of experience and almost 8 000 runs - especially when the nearly 36-year-old sports a sublime ODI batting average of almost 57 against all foes on English pitches.

An attractive alternative to curtailing the batting department to seven, I now quite firmly believe, is to trim the all-rounder quota to just two.

There are three in the present, 14-man squad doing duty against Sri Lanka - Andile Phehlukwayo, Wiaan Mulder and Dwaine Pretorius - while there is also still a well-subscribed Chris Morris fan club, although rightly or wrongly he doesn’t appear to be part of World Cup thinking at this point.

All have their merits, and varying levels of strengths, plus all-rounders always have that scope for bringing sometimes vitally necessary balance to a team ... at least on paper.

Yet particularly of late, we have seen little in the way of truly wowing performances at ODI level from the group, even if some have had more curtailed opportunities than others.

If you pick as many as three of them for the World Cup squad, then, will they really make game-tilting differences; dazzle the planet with their X-factor?

The 21-year-old Mulder especially concerns me: for all his obvious long-term potential, he has played nine matches for South Africa to this point, which isn’t a lot, and the best batting performance he can show is a 19 not out, while his top bowling haul is two for 59.

Gibson likes him - that much is apparent - but time is also running desperately short for him to produce something a little beyond the ordinary; to prove that he could catapult to mastery on the biggest, most stressful stage there is.

Right now, a personal inclination would be to limit the Proteas’ World Cup designated all-rounders to two (let’s not forget Duminy’s additional, part-time off-spinning capabilities).

Against such a backdrop, my first choice would be Phehlukwayo, who has hunger, an excitement factor about him when the mood grabs him and a pleasing determination to keep improving.

It is knee-jerk nonsense, as has happened on social media, for people to suggest I am somehow “anti” Phehlukwayo as a batsman. No, the man hits a wondrously long ball when his timing is working a treat.

I have simply said that I believe in an ideal world his best slot in that capacity is No 8, rather than one spot higher where he would probably be gateway to an extremely fluffy tail indeed.

He remains a relative rookie, remember, to the technical demands of batting in England, and at this stage of his development No 7 in that country seems ... well, overly optimistic.

But if that’s a risk the Proteas are prepared to take, then the best of luck to them, and him.

His bowling, meanwhile, is coming on in leaps and bounds: he has stopped being excessively prone to mix-it-up stuff, which can become almost as formulaic as showing no variety at all, and is striking nice balances between variation and disciplined line-and-length fare.

If the English pitches are slow and grippy, as some anticipate, Phehlukwayo has the potential to be a big bowling factor at this World Cup.

My second and only other all-rounder, if I were picking the CWC squad now, would be one of Pretorius or Morris.

And then you can free up the luxury, potentially, of sporting more of a Full Monty (or read: eight players) in batting resources.

Don’t they say it’s a batsman's game ... and increasingly so?

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing


Read more on:    proteas  |  cwc 2019  |  cricket


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