Proteas have fun keeping ’em guessing

If variety is the spice of life then Gary Kirsten and AB de Villiers have used only the most effervescent ingredients to breathe new life into the Proteas ODI squad and their approach to the game.

They are as refreshing to watch now as they have ever been. Tuesday’s series-clinching victory in the third ODI against Sri Lanka may have come with the aid of a calculator when the rain fell in Bloemfontein, but it was no less deserved, or entertaining, for that.

Kirsten and De Villiers share the belief that a team that has specialist death bowlers, specialist new-ball bowlers and designated batsmen as finishers is a team destined to become predictable and, therefore, increasingly beatable.

Besides, notwithstanding some physical limitations that direct batsmen and bowlers towards their natural strengths, why shouldn’t well-paid, elite cricketers be willing and able to interchange with each other and perform more than one specialist role?

The first three games of the current series against Sri Lanka have seen three different men fill the number four batting berth, a position once considered sacrosanct and reserved for the team’s most consistent middle-overs worker.

De Villiers scored a brilliant 52 from just 40 balls in Paarl, J-P Duminy was man of the match with his unbeaten 66 in East London and Faf du Plessis repeated the feat in Bloemfontein on Wednesday, despite being run out for a highly accomplished 72 from just 74 deliveries.

Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel have taken turns sharing the new ball with one-day specialist Lonwabo Tsotsobe, while De Villiers has appeared to be deciding on the death overs as he goes along — or “trusting his guts”, as he termed it.

It is all very, very far removed from the formulaic approach that has characterised so many South African teams in the past.

But therein lies the conundrum. Those teams won far more than they lost and, apart from a few very rare (and reluctant) forays up the batting order by Lance Klusener and a host of technical innovations from Bob Woolmer, there was precious little spice added to the mixture apart from that provided by the individual brilliance of the players involved (Jonty Rhodes, Shaun Pollock et al).

Was that the reason the team lost at such critical times? Possibly. When crunch time arrived, the opposition knew which direction the South African team would turn in. Now, with a captain whose batting place might vary depending on his wicket-keeping workload as well as his whims and intuition, and a coach not only happy to allow players to make their own decisions but encouraging them to do so, the old predictability might become a thing of the past.

“In order to progress to their next level, whatever that might be, professional sportsmen need to challenge themselves by acknowledging whether they are in a comfort zone and then being prepared to move out of it,” said Paddy Upton, the team’s mental-conditioning coach.

But Graeme Smith remains a dilemma. At least he looked as if he was enjoying himself on Tuesday in Bloemfontein. Without that quality, he has little or no chance of retaining his ODI place and resurrecting his faltering career. Kirsten, De Villiers and, most importantly of all, selection convenor Andrew Hudson still retain absolute faith in his stellar abilities and have no inclination to send him away to find form with the Cobras, especially with the team missing the services of Jacques Kallis and Hashim Amla.

If he was to make that decision himself they would be unlikely to attempt to dissuade him. But the shallow insinuation that he is clinging to a place in the team for selfish reasons is absurd, given that it was his decision to relinquish the leadership and his suggestion that some “fresh ideas and a new approach” might be in the team’s best interests.

Right now, the team are exciting to watch and they are winning. It does not get much better than that.

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Neil Manthorp
Neil Manthorp works from Cape Town. Talk and write about cricket,golf and most sports. Executive Coach. Cook for the family when at home. Neil Manthorp has over 27405 followers on Twitter.

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