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South Africa's Mission 2019 looking dicey

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South_Africa_opening_batting_Test_CricketThe recently concluded six-match ODI series between India and South Africa has thrown up some interesting patterns. After beating South Africa in the sixth ODI at Centurion, India has clinched the series 5-1 and has looked a far superior side. The Proteas, meanwhile, have been thoroughly embarrassed in front of their home crowd and have not lived up to their reputation. It isn’t just the result that has disappointed the fans. It’s the team’s abject surrender to the opposition that has left them feeling gutted.

Ever since their reintroduction to cricket, South Africa has been a dominant force in limited overs and is virtually impregnable at home. The fact that they let India get away with a series victory, even when the visitors weren’t at their best, does not reflect well on the South African ODI unit. It is time for some serious introspection by the team management.

The team seems to be overly reliant on old stalwarts AB de Villiers, Hashim Amla and Faf Du Plessis, and their bowling lacks variety. South Africa had announced their ‘Mission 2019’ for the ODI World Cup in England next year with great aplomb. But given how they have performed in the ODI series at home against a not-at-their-best Indian side, there needs to be some serious questions asked and measures taken in earnest if South Africa hopes to be competitive in the ODI World Cup next summer.

The ineptness against spin  

It’s bizarre how often it keeps happening. And yet they fail to learn from their mistakes. South Africa’s frailties against spin, wrist spin in particular, are widely known. Australia’s spin bowling legend Shane Warne, in his prime, had tormented the South African batsmen for years.

This has continued for a long time but with the advent of technically sound players like AB de Villiers and Hashim Amla, and with the Indian Premier League (IPL) opening its doors to many South African batsmen, the perception was that South Africa finally conquered their fear of spin – at least in limited overs cricket. And while a few experienced batsmen certainly have done well in that regard over the years, the ODI series against India has exposed South Africa’s spin ineptness yet again.

To put things in perspective, India’s wrist-spinners, Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav, have taken 33 of the 51 South African wickets to fall in the series. Barring the 4th ODI at Johannesburg, where the evening rain made it difficult for the spinners to grip the ball, the Indian spin duo have been all over the South African batting unit. Their batsmen have looked tentative against spin and have poked and prodded or just swept wildly to get away. They have simply not been able to pick the deliveries out of the spinners’ hands and the prodigious turn the two have been generating off the pitch has caused major headaches to them.

The Indian spinners have been strangling the South African middle-order during the crucial middle overs which has curtailed run flow and led to an eventual fall of wickets. While Chahal’s bowling average this series has been an impressive 16.37, Yadav’s has been an incredible 13.88. This has been the primary cause for their regular low scores and for India’s dominance over them with the ball.

"The key is definitely to try and be positive, but unfortunately on a few occasions we haven't picked the wrong 'uns and when you are not picking their wrong 'uns, you are not necessarily comfortable at the crease so you are always going to be a bit tentative," South Africa’s senior batsman JP Duminy said recently.

A top ODI side that wishes to win the World Cup certainly needs to be better prepared against spin bowling. This has long been their bane and it is about time they worked towards rectifying it properly. Otherwise this weakness is likely to be bared even further in world tournaments and may cost South Africa dear.

Batting unit looking fragile

Another glaring feature of South Africa’s miserable fortune in the ODI series has been the lack of any future batting stars to look forward to and the fragility of their batting unit as a whole.

Captain Aiden Markram has mustered just 127 runs in 6 matches as an opener and his partner Hashim Amla, usually the most reliable South African batsman, has only a solitary fifty to his name.

David Miller has been going through a very bad phase, managing only 107 runs in the five matches he has played. The other experienced batsman, JP Duminy, has fared even worse and collected just 99 runs in five innings.

One more significant cause for worry for South Africa is their lack of future batting stars. Khaya Zondo has looked average at best. Andile Phehlukwayo has been rather poor against the spinners and has gotten out while attempting ugly hoicks against them. Hard-hitting all-rounder Chris Morris has not displayed the pyrotechnics he is known for and looks out of touch.

Wicketkeeper-batsman Quinton de Kock, once India’s nemesis in the shorter formats, looked out of sorts in the first two games he played. While his replacement, Heinrich Klaasen, does look promising, it remains to be seen if he is a real future investment.

It is a given that by the time the World Cup arrives, South Africa would dearly hope to have their star batsmen, AB de Villiers, Hashim Amla and Faf du Plessis in full form and fitness. However, it is high time that the team management begins to invest in better future options who can support these three with conviction. For now, however, things look a bit grim as far as their batting unit is concerned.

Bowling unit in need of variety

South Africa’s bowling has been consistently good over the years. But of late, their limited overs bowling attack seems to be lacking incisiveness and variety. Apart from the young Kagiso Rabada, the South African bowling unit has been unimpressive. They have been guilty of bowling too many bad balls during pressure situations and have been unable to pick up wickets at regular intervals.

To present a comparison, the South African bowlers have picked up just 23 wickets in the six ODIs in this series as opposed to the 51 scalps by the Indian bowlers. Playing at home, in conditions that suit their bowlers, this performance should most certainly sting the South African team.

Morne Morkel is clearly past his prime and has taken just 2 wickets in the series. Lungi Ngidi has got eight wickets and bowled well but he still lacks that spark that can make him a reliable and attacking frontline seamer. Medium-pacer Andile Phehlukwayo has been decent only in patches and mostly expensive otherwise.

A lot was expected of Chris Morris but he has failed to be consistent. Morris has the pace and the ability to be a quality third seamer for South Africa. But he has a tendency to leak runs and be all over the place at times. In this ODI series, Morris has taken just 2 wickets at an expensive economy rate of 5.97.

Another major cause of concern for South Africa is the performance, or lack thereof, of their spinners. Imran Tahir failed to produce any magic in the four matches he played and took only a solitary wicket. The other leg-spinner, Tabraiz Shamsi, has never looked like troubling the batsmen and has been pretty mediocre with no wickets to show for. Captain Markram has had to largely depend on JP Duminy to fulfill the spinner’s role this series.

For South Africa’s ‘Mission 2019’ to be successful, they urgently need a wicket-taking spin bowler who can choke the opposition in the middle overs. They also require a potent swing bowler to back up Rabada at the front. Otherwise, the South African attack has a sameness to it and will struggle in most conditions that do not assist pace and bounce.

Looking ahead

How exactly South Africa cope with this demoralizing and crushing series loss against India will be interesting to see. They have been the No.1 ODI side until very recently and one expects them to pick themselves up soon.

The country is not short on talent. But there are certainly some grey areas that need to be addressed. Perhaps it’s good that the chinks in South Africa’s armor have been exposed so early on. If the team management can sit down and work prudently towards rebuilding this team, with a steady mix of experienced stalwarts and game-changing youngsters, then South Africa has the potential to get back in their groove.

For now, though, it’s back to the drawing board.

 

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