Sport

Cricket: The Proteas’ one-day summer of discontent

By Antoinette Muller 2 December 2013

Something is rotten in the state of South African cricket, and no, it’s not the administrators. The Proteas’ struggles when chasing totals in ODIs have been exposed and paraded for all to see throughout the year, and with the World Cup now just 18 months away, they will face their toughest preparation yet when India arrives this week. BY ANTOINETTE MULLER

South Africa managed to avoid the dubious honour of being whitewashed at home for the first time when they beat Pakistan by four wickets and 68 balls still remaining on Saturday. Most surprisingly, South Africa won the match chasing, although it hardly felt convincing.

Pakistan, for the first time since arriving in South Africa, conspired to take on their usual demeanour of collective brain-fading which would put the hosts themselves to shame. It was only the third time the Proteas had won a game chasing this year and they did so while stumbling to 124-5 in 26.5 overs, something which would have left many feeling somewhat uneasy about their chances. Take nothing away from Pakistan, though: Saeed Ajmal is a wizard who you’d trust to spin straw into gold, but South Africa’s chasing ability has been nothing short of woeful. Conditions have played their part and finding a settled squad of players have too, but there are far too many amateur mistakes which have blighted their cause.

While their results overall have been inconsistent, at least there has been consistency in their inability to chase. Overall, over the last two years, they have won nine and lost eight games chasing, but alarmingly, all eight of those losses came in 2013. Five times in the last six months, they have stuttered towards a total of 200 or less. Although a few of those games included reduced over targets, the inability to build partnerships must be distressing.

The opening pair, which has been chopped and changed a few times, only managed one partnership of 40 or more in chasing games once this year. In chasing games, there have been just two 100-plus run partnerships and just five of over 50, with two of those being put on by the seventh-wicket pair.

Although statistics might only tell half the story and conditions and opposition need to be factored in, there is something very wrong with the approach when batting second. In contrast, when batting first, the opening partnership has crossed 50 thrice, there have been six partnerships of 100-plus and 19 of 50 or more. The error is clearly not in the ability of the players, but in their approach – and with a World Cup around the corner, there is very little time to sort it out.

The current squad of players is most likely the squad which will be going to the 2015 World Cup, or that’s the hope from the team management, anyway. To prepare for that showpiece, South Africa have just the three one-day games against India remaining this year, with 2014 comprising Zimbabwe, one-day games away in Australia and hosting the West Indies in South Africa. As the schedule stands, that is it. Just 16 games in total to find the final combination for silverware – the same silverware people have stopped expecting them to win.

It might seem as if 16 games amount to a lot, but that is far from the case for a team that is yet to figure out its best eleven, all while trying to manage some of its finest players. Every single one-day game that has been played over the last few months has yielded some sort of change to the starting team. Although some roles have been defined, uncertainty reigns over the rest and few players have had the chase to settle into the slot specifically engineered for them.

Hashim Amla and AB de Villiers are the two extraordinary protagonists who often have to dig their side out of a hole. Dale Steyn is the fierce and fiery opening bowler who is blossoming in the one-day format and currently has the lowest average of his entire career for a calendar year. He has 21 wickets in 11 games this year at an average of just 18.38, while Lonwabo Tsotsobe, on his day, is phenomenal. He is controlled and concise, but prone to a bad day here and there. The rest of the side still seems to be struggling with adopting an identity in specific roles and the upcoming series against India will be yet another stern test of their resolve.

It’s a very interesting and contrasting dynamic. India quite enjoy chasing. They have chosen to do so in 14 of the games in which they have won the toss this year, and they have won 12 of those games. Granted, once again, the conditions were much different, but India, as the World Champions, have got some serious temperament in tight situations, something South Africa could learn from. In the 12 games India have batted first this year, they have won eight and lost four, meaning they have a formidable ODI record and rightly so; they are the best in the world, after all.

What would have been a jam-packed seven ODIs between the two sides has been truncated down to just three. Although that’s not the worst thing in the world, considering South Africa need to carefully manage some of their star players, it does mean that finding the balance will become ever more delicate for the Proteas. Lose another ODI series at home and it will be time for selectors to ask some serious questions of their personnel, as the final round of World Cup preparations rolls around next year. DM

Photo: South Africa’s batsman Hashim Amla celebrates with his team mates after catching out Pakistan’s Abdur Rehman during the One-Day International (ODI) at Centurion. (REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko)

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