Sport

Take your mind off the Proteas and chill

Neil Manthorp

South African cricket lovers may finally be able to watch a global event without expecting the Proteas to win.

Proteas captains AB de Villiers and Faf du Plessis. (AFP)

It might have taken a few decades to get there, but South African cricket lovers may finally have reached that happy, stress-free place that allows them to watch a global event without the inconvenience of expecting to see the Proteas win it.

Faf du Plessis and his team may start the International Cricket Council T20 World Cup ranked third in the world but, with Australia's power-packed squad of proven match-winners and Indian Premier League stars down at number six, it's obvious that the format's ranking equation could do with a tweak. Or three.

The Proteas will be based in Bangladesh's second city, Chitta­gong, for the duration of the group stage. The first match is against Sri Lanka on Saturday March 22 and is followed in quick succession by contests against New Zealand, England and a tournament qualifier, likely to be Zimbabwe or Ireland.

The group based in the capital, Dhaka, appears to be far stronger, with India, Pakistan, Australia and the West Indies competing for two semifinal places alongside another qualifier, likely to be the host nation.

England may be struggling in their not-so-bright post-Kevin Pietersen era, but Sri Lanka and New Zealand present formidable challenges. That said, a place in the semifinals is just two games away from glory and, as England captain Stuart Broad admitted last week, T20s can be won by individuals.

'Two outstanding perfomances'
"You basically need two outstanding performances to win a game. Somebody scores 80 off 40 balls and someone else takes 4-20 and you're pretty much home," Broad said.

The Proteas do, indeed, have players of such quality. But don't hold your breath – and remove all heavy, potentially dangerous projectiles from the television room on match days if you are a poor loser. But expect the worst and you may be pleasantly surprised. As Graeme Smith said only last week, they have to win a major event at some point. Surely?

The proximity of the tournament to a breathtaking Test series against Australia and the vexing issue of Smith's successor also combine to remove some of the sheen traditionally associated with these events.

AB de Villiers is the one-day international (ODI) captain and was Smith's Test deputy. In normal circumstances his status as heir apparent would be uncontested. But the fact that he is also the wicketkeeper and the team's best batsman complicates the situation.

A wicketkeeping De Villiers at number five not only affords the team the luxury of a seventh specialist batsman but he also happens to have averaged 70 with the bat since he took the gloves. Hardly a strong case for change. He is also passionately keen to take over from Smith.

Up for the job
"I would love to do the job. It would be the highlight of my cricket career. Every little boy dreams of one captaining his country in Test cricket and I was no different."

Unsurprisingly, he says he would accept the challenge of combining all three jobs if asked – and despite overwhelming professional opinion that it would be impossible.

"I will do what is best for the team. Obviously it is up to the selectors whether they bring in another wicketkeeper. I will do all three jobs if I am asked," De Villiers said before revealing, tellingly, what his experience has been captaining the ODI side. "I think I'm a better captain if I am not 'keeping because of the time you can spend talking to your bowlers."

If that is the case, then a straight choice between Thami Tsolekile and Quinton de Kock would appear to be on the cards. That's unless De Villiers is overlooked for the captaincy in favour of another man – Hashim Amla and Du Plessis are the obvious candidates, with JP Duminy an outsider.

Suggestions that Cricket South Africa may be prevailed on politically to select a black skipper were vehemently denied by CSA chief executive Haroon Lorgat, who said: "This speculation is nothing but mischief-making. I will engage with the selection panel in due course to provide the CSA board with a recommendation for approval."

Reluctant leader
In any case, for all Amla's aptitude and feel for the game, he is a reluctant leader and, having resigned the vice-captaincy two years ago to concentrate on his batting, is unlikely to volunteer. He is a brilliant lieutenant in the ranks.

Du Plessis is a career captain but, despite averaging 50 in his 14 Test matches, including a few heroic, match-saving centuries against Australia and India, he may not have played enough to convince the selectors that he is the long-term solution. Not that anybody can be guaranteed short-term success in Test cricket, never mind in the long term.

Meanwhile, De Villiers will travel to Bangladesh under the leadership of his lifelong friend, Du Plessis, in yet another effort to satisfy both the team's and the nation's craving for limited-overs success.

Next year's World Cup in Austra­lasia is the one that really matters, but success in the next three weeks will go a long way towards convincing everyone that De Villiers can return from Melbourne with the trophy four previous captains have failed to win.

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