Why Proteas must think on their feet

Take a chance: Proteas captain Faf du Plessis (left) will have to be flexible in his approach, (Adnan Abidi/Reuters)

Take a chance: Proteas captain Faf du Plessis (left) will have to be flexible in his approach, (Adnan Abidi/Reuters)

Heyneke Meyer was full of good intentions when he declared his belief that the Springboks should play to their “traditional strengths” at last year’s World Cup. His most passionate declaration came in the immediate aftermath of the stunning loss to Japan.

So the ball was duly retained among the forwards for extended periods thereafter and the driving maul was the favoured method of moving it towards the opposition try line. The Springboks lost in the semifinal and finished third.

The Proteas have had far more “Japan moments” at World Cups than their Springbok brothers and the resultant temptation to stick to what they know best is proportionally greater. Two weeks ago it looked and sounded like the team captained by Faf du Plessis might be consumed by the captain’s desire for order.

The tournament, he said, had been in his thoughts for most of the two years since they were eliminated by India in the semifinals at the last event. The planning had been going on for much of that time.

Everyone “knows their job” and the team is “settled”, Du Plessis said. It all sounded a little predictable, and that is a quality that does not help teams in the shortest, most explosive format.

It even seemed that Du Plessis was so rigid with his “settled” team that he was unable to process an unexpected but glorious surge in Hashim Amla’s batting strike rate against England and Australia, which removed lingering doubts that he might anchor the team in very much the wrong way should he be included.

Du Plessis may have a conservative streak but he is also a fashionista with a keen eye for trends, and he was well aware of the building wave of opinion that had both Amla and Quinton de Kock in the team – despite the decision, made over a year ago – to have AB de Villiers open the batting.

Du Plessis and coach Russell Domingo justified batting the genius De Villiers at number four with an array of statistics that, they said, indicated that was his best position. Yet when he was given the chance to bat at number three in a must-win game against England during that tournament, he blasted 69 from just 28 balls and was the difference between the teams in a three-run win.

In the semifinal a fit-again Du Plessis reinstated himself at number three and, bizarrely, JP Duminy came in ahead of De Villiers, who had just 6.1 overs remaining in the innings by the time he arrived at the crease. Decent though Duminy’s unbeaten 45 was, the fact that it spanned 40 deliveries almost certainly cost South Africa the chance of a place in the final.

There was further evidence on Wednesday that the Proteas’s plans were not, after all, carved in stone. In their warm-up match against a Mumbai XI chasing a stiff target of 190, De Villiers appeared at number four in the 10th over and clinically finished the game with an unbeaten 52 from 29 balls.

The most forward-thinking teams are those unconstrained by the conventions that govern other formats – things like batting orders. The skill is to have the best batsmen at the crease at the right time to suit their skills and strengths, as well as the right bowlers operating to the right batsmen.

Planning has a place, but it also requires “reading”, a bit of guessing and also second-guessing.

By the 10th over a captain needs to have an idea about which of his opponent’s batsmen are likely to be there at the death and which of his own bowlers might be best suited bowling at them. Or which of his own batsmen are most suitably skilled to face the men likely to be bowling the final four overs.

There is a perception that South Africa still tend to play 20-over cricket like a miniature version of the 50-over game, with a “quiet” period in the middle of the innings reserved for consolidation before the final onslaught. It is here, between the eighth and 14th overs, when more games are decided than most – players as well as spectators – realise.

Analysis of domestic T20 tournaments reveals that the majority of winning teams score more runs in the middle period of the innings than their opponents – even if they have been outscored in both the power play and the death overs.

A single “monster” over of 16 or 18 runs, when the fielding side is trying to catch its collective breath, can affect the result more than scoring at 10 an over when it is “expected”.

Courage and conviction in selection is also critical. Du Plessis has spoken, understandably, of his desire to have a long batting line-up, but New Zealand displayed the importance of specialists when they used three frontline spinners in a stunning upset against hosts India in the opening game. South Africa play West Indies on the same turning pitch in Nagpur. If they feel tempted to sacrifice an all-rounder for an extra spinner, probably David Wiese for Aaron Phangiso, they must do it.

Above all, however, they need to think on their feet and be adaptable if they are to avoid another Japan moment.

Fixtures

March 18: vs England, Mumbai

March 20: vs Afghanistan, Mumbai

March 25: vs West Indies, Nagpur

March 28: vs Sri Lanka, Delhi

March 30: First semifinal, Delhi

March 31: Second semifinal, Mumbai

April 3: Final, Eden Gardens, Kolkatta.

  Group 1: India, Australia, New Zealand, Pakistan, Bangladesh

  Group 2: South Africa, West Indies, England, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan

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