South Africa’s rousing 75-run victory in the first one-day international (ODI) against Sri Lanka in Colombo on Sunday spat in the face of a record that is poorer than any between major nations in a single country.
The Proteas had beaten their hosts on home soil just twice in 20 years and little suggested they could change things. But they did, thanks to the brilliance of Hashim Amla (109) and AB de Villiers (75) who shared a third-wicket partnership of 151.
It was no surprise to see the home side bounce back equally emphatically in the second game in Pallekele, Galle, on Wednesday, although the nature of South Africa’s 87-run defeat may have encouraged those who witnessed the insipid, clueless efforts of the past. If dying by the sword is better than keeping it sheathed and hoping for the best, at least they could not be accused of diffidence in the mountain kingdom of Kandy.
It may be premature to question the composition of the 15-man squad, and especially the inclusion of one of the greatest cricketers ever, but Jacques Kallis and his supporters better get used to it until he reaffirms his status with a performance, or two, that reminds us of his 20-year track record. Unable to bowl and with scores of 0 and 1 here in Sri Lanka, he has not started well.
The inclusion of Kallis in the starting XI for both games was based more on loyalty than logic – and the fact that you don’t take a man of his reputation and standing 8 000km from home and then not play him.
From the first days of the great all-rounder’s return to the ODI squad following retirement from Test cricket and a six-month sabbatical from the international game, coach Russell Domingo asserted that he would be required to remain a genuine all-rounder, and play as one. It was in that capacity that he was required by the team.
When Kallis twinged something in his upper back the day before the only warm-up match in Colombo last week, he was withdrawn from the game. Before the first ODI two days later, it was left to captain De Villiers to assure his pre-match audience that Kallis would be fit to bowl: “He’s ready to go. It’s just a question of how many overs he can bowl, but he’s good to go.”
He was, however, being “carried” as a specialist batsman in both matches. When Sri Lanka got off to a flying start in pursuit of a record victory target of 305 in the first game, a few overs from Kallis against the almost equally experienced Kumar Sangakkara was the obvious antidote. If it had been available, De Villiers would have used it.
During Wednesday’s second game, when Dale Steyn was injured in just his third over, the Proteas’ bowling stocks were tested even further, but still Kallis was not called upon, not even for a few overs. It’s one thing kidding the opposition and perfectly understandable to kid the media. The worry is that, if not now, then at some point between now and the World Cup – if not at the event itself – the Proteas will kid themselves.
Ryan McLaren was one of those who may have experienced an umpteenth setback in his quest to establish himself in the XI when Kallis returned but he is one of the most mature and pragmatic cricketers to have represented his country in the past two decades.
“We are a better team with him in it,” he said before the squad left home. “It’s up to me, and everyone else, to raise our standards up to his.”
McLaren has the skill and vision to reinvent himself into whatever role needs to be filled. Two years ago, he embarked on a strength-building programme to develop his power batting, and his role as the “pressure builder” with the ball in the middle overs is one he is relishing.
“We are all benefiting from knowing what our specific roles are,” he said in Colombo after taking 2-33 in a 75-run victory.
“Role definition” is an overhyped desire of cricketers who are not good or confident enough to adapt. Gary Kirsten was so frustrated by batsmen’s desire to bat at number three, four, five or six that he dissolved the numbers, creating a fluid mix to be decided on the match situation and conditions. It worked well for a while but, when results failed to materialise for a period, the players wanted their comfort blankets back.
Now it is the turn of bowling coach Allan Donald to enforce some free-thinking and adaptability on his troops. “Death bowling” has long been ascribed to specialists. A decade and more ago, it was fast- or medium-paced bowlers who could bowl yorkers. Then increasingly exciting variations appeared – slower balls, slow bouncers and even brisk leg breaks. Then some spinners came into their own at the end.
Donald’s view is as logical as Kirsten’s was: players may have preferences but everybody should be able and available to fulfil whatever role is required of them. Specialist death bowlers, after all, allow the opposition’s analysis experts to prepare. Predictability can be the downfall of the regimented.
As for Kallis, De Villiers has the final say, and it is a view shared by his players: “We have to include him, we need to, we need him. His experience and the effect he has on players is beyond what most people can understand.”