Cricket-lovers should reserve their serious interest in South Africa’s international T20 schedule for no more than a few months every two years when it becomes a global International Cricket Council event, which is not to say watching the West Indians play this week wasn’t a lot of fun. It was a delightful distraction.
Whereas the Proteas are struggling to find one all-rounder worthy of the name, the men from the Caribbean flew in no less than seven of them, all with bats like cannons, and squeezed them all into the starting XI at Newlands and the Wanderers to win the series with a game to spare.
Cricket South Africa’s approach to T20 cricket provides more than enough evidence of the regard in which they hold it. Supporters who felt short-changed by not seeing AB de Villiers, Hashim Amla, Dale Steyn and Morné Morkel in action need only to have looked at the squad before the series began to realise what they were in for.
It is a format for players at opposite ends of their careers and those on the fringes of the one-day international (ODI) squad rather than the “best XI”. The relevance of individual performances, and of the convincing consolation victory at Kingsmead on Wednesday, will only be seen in the months and years ahead when their experience and “lessons learned” are put to the test in contests of greater stature.
If there was a World Cup for “resting”, the Proteas would be hard to beat. But if the absence of the stars from these three exhibitions of hitting ensures they are fresher and stronger come the knockout stages of the real World Cup in mid-March, the selectors and team management will be vindicated.
The big guns return
The big guns return for the five-match ODI series, which begins at Kingsmead today, and the Proteas are likely to play in a style and structure as close as possible to the one they will employ in the first game of the World Cup against Zimbabwe in Hamilton, New Zealand, on February 15.
The squad has vacillated between structure and flexibility for much of the past four years and appears set to return to the comfort that role definition provides to insecure players.
Gary Kirsten’s view when he took over as coach nearly four years ago was simple. “Ideally, I wouldn’t even name the team in batting order. There should be no such thing. The different skills required to bat at the top of the order and to finish games should be shared by the top six or seven,” Kirsten said.
“There might be times when a left-hander is more suitable than a right-hander, when the better players of spin are better used in the middle overs. There are many reasons, physical and mental, to have flexibility in the batting order.”
Everybody nodded at the time but, privately, they embraced the change as enthusiastically as an eight-year-old when offered olives instead of grapes. Cricket is full of illogical anomalies and so are its players. Old habits are inherited and they die hard. A batsman wants to be number three, five or six, and will not entertain discussion about the fact that he may come to the crease in the second or 42nd over with the total on 10 or 210 and that his number in the order is irrelevant.
Just a few months ago Kirsten’s team-mate and current Proteas bowling coach, Allan Donald, was still advocating flexibility among the bowlers. “They should all have the skills to bowl at both ends of the innings, and in the middle overs,” Donald said late last year. “If you can bowl with the new ball then you should be able to bowl at the death.”
Once again, there was public affirmation of the ideal from the bowlers. There may also have been a little less enthusiasm below the surface.
The days of Hansie Cronjé Thus the five matches against the West Indies may see a return to the formulaic approach so favoured and so successful in the days of Hansie Cronjé. Two new-ball bowlers, two change seamers, a spinner and a part-timer for the middle overs and two designated death bowlers to finish things off. And a largely rigid batting order, certainly for “big” games. Maybe throw in a pinch-hitter against smaller opposition. In Cronjé’s day, it produced an 80% win rate, the highest ever achieved.
The trouble is, the game has changed fundamentally and so have the players and the equipment they use. Four boundary fielders instead of five has made the bowlers’ job disproportionately harder and bat technology has advanced so much in the past decade that mishits clear the infield, if not the ropes.
Playing seven specialist batsmen is the non-negotiable core of South Africa’s tactical master plan. Having taken the wild gamble of discarding the country’s best all-rounder, Ryan McLaren, they are left with four specialist bowlers and JP Duminy to bowl their 50 overs. Oh, for the days when it was South Africa, not the West Indies, who led the way in all-rounder production.
Quinton de Kock, Hashim Amla, Faf du Plessis, AB de Villiers, JP Duminy, David Miller, Rilee Rossouw, Farhaan Behardien, Vernon Philander, Wayne Parnell, Dale Steyn, Morné Morkel, Kyle Abbott, Imran Tahir, Aaron Phangiso
January 16: First ODI, Durban
January 18: Second ODI, Wanderers
January 21: Third ODI, East London
January 25: Fourth ODI, Port Elizabeth
January 28: Fifth ODI, Centurion