South African cricket: Still ticking all the right boxes in Zim
South Africa’s tri-series in Zimbabwe has been the perfect “box-ticking” exercise. While it sounds like marketing speak, South Africa are learning all the right lessons as their World Cup preparation continues to accelerate. By ANTOINETTE MULLER.
When sportspeople are quizzed about what exactly they want to gain from what may seem like meaningless matches, they always mention “ticking certain boxes”. On the surface, it sounds shallow, but there is actually method to this madness.
All one-day games right now are being played with the agenda of the World Cup in mind. Even if the opposition is mediocre, testing the team’s ability to respond to different match situations is important.
South Africa have ticked quite a few boxes during the tri-series. They have chased down a massive total in clinical fashion and they have defended a low total after a discombobulating batting performance. With the former, the team threw the proverbial monkey off their back. With their chasing having been so poor in recent times, it was an important box to tick. The latter - the collapse and the subsequent defence - wasn’t so much a pressure release as rather a simple relief.
The match against Zimbabwe on Friday offered another opportunity to try a few back-up options. There was no AB de Villiers in that match, and poor Rilee Rossouw was out for a duck yet again, meaning he has not scored a run in his first two international ODIs. Rossouw, who is highly rated on the domestic circuit, has very clearly been overcome by The Yips, something usually reserved for spinners in cricket. It’s far too early to judge his future staying power from his last two outings, but he can draw some confidence from the fact that one Sachin Tendulkar started his limited overs career in a similar fashion.
Another change for South Africa on the day was the captaincy. Hashim Amla, rather than Faf du Plessis, took over the leadership duties, but the last time he captained in Zimbabwe, things weren’t quite so fruitful. He had been in charge of an unofficial T20 tour here in 2012, where South Africa were beaten by both Bangladesh and Zimbabwe and eventually lost to the hosts in the final of the series. Did he think back to those results when he was handed the captain’s armband on Friday? Certainly, but this is a different situation, and South Africa has evolved much since then.
"I did think about it, and somebody mentioned it to me last night, but it's a bit of a different team and it's a fifty-over game, so I had full confidence that 230 was defendable, even though we were missing two star players in AB and Morne. It's a good performance and I think it's always sweeter when you win after being under a bit of pressure,” said Amla.
Still, Amla was under no illusions that the batsmen failed. Prosper Utseya was the biggest thorn in South Africa’s side and pressure from him saw an emphatic collapse where the Proteas lost their first six wickets for just 21 runs, going from 142-0 to 163-6, recording their worst-ever collapse for the first six wickets.
“We were 50 or 60 runs short, but with these sort of totals you have to make it defendable," Amla said.
"And we made it defendable. It's really disappointing but blowouts like that do happen in the game, although usually what happens is you have your blowout and you lose the game. We've had our blowout and we've won the game, so hopefully that's us done for the series as far as batting errors go. Prosper bowled well, so credit to him.”
Morne Morkel was missing in action, too, and Kyle Abbott slotted in alongside Dale Steyn to lead the attack. Abbott, like Rossouw, has been immense domestically and is a highly skilled death bowler, but was somewhat disappointing against Zim. He was the most expensive of the bowlers who had bowled more than five overs and failed to take a single wicket. The rest of the bowlers were in fine fettle, though, and Amla believes the low total actually aided the cause. Dale Steyn was, as ever, sublime, and was well supported by Aaron Pangiso, Ryan McLaren and, to an extent, Imran Tahir.
South Africa's bowling unit have been guilty of becoming slack in the last five to ten overs recently, but they were much tighter on Friday, with the run-rate never exceeding 4.42 in the last few overs as wickets continued to tumble.
"Had we scored 300 or 350 and won the game, the intensity in the field wouldn't have been as good as we normally have, so having 230 on the board kept everyone in the game. That's the pleasing aspect - that we were in the game until they lost the ninth wicket," Amla said. "Because a few big hits here or there, 60 runs is not a big margin to win by. So in the context of the game, we take a lot of confidence from that.”
While the middle order might have been short on runs, the top order have been exceptional, and the tandem of Quinton de Kock and Hashim Amla is probably one of the greatest assets the team gained in recent months. The two have such a glorious chemistry that it’s hard to imagine that just over 12 months ago, South Africa looked lost for options in these two positions. In their 17 innings together, they have already accumulated 1,109 runs together at an average of 65.23, the highest average since Graeme Smith and AB de Villiers opened the batting together.
Their staying power, as well as the bowlers’ ability to grind down opposition, will be tested twice more before the final of the tri-series on Saturday. South Africa have two matches remaining - one against Australia on Tuesday and another against Zimbabwe on Thursday. If their previous two showings are anything to go by, then they are expected to walk away as winners in both. And that sets up another box to tick: performing when the expectation and the pressure is well and truly on. DM
Photo: South Africa's captain Hashim Amla wears his helmet during a practice session ahead of their first test cricket match against Sri Lanka in Galle July 15, 2014. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte