Proteas must exit comfort zone

Brutal batting: But Quinton de Kock couldn’t save South Africa. (Lee Warren/Gallo)

Brutal batting: But Quinton de Kock couldn’t save South Africa. (Lee Warren/Gallo)

South African captain AB de Villiers said before the current one-day international series against England that the Proteas were more “comfortable” in the longer of the limited-overs formats because they were “settled” and had fewer “new faces” coming in and out of the starting XI.

It is not an unusual sentiment. Captains and senior players enjoy the familiarity of players they know and trust, especially in a winning team. And this ODI team has won their past two series, against New Zealand and India, although they did so with a more experienced and skilled bowling attack than the one with which they began against England.

There may, however, have been just the slightest of eyebrow raises among some members of the cricketing cognoscenti at De Villiers’s lauding of the continuity policy, especially in light of Wednesday’s heavy defeat in the opening game at the Mangaung Oval in Bloemfontein.

Having conceded 399-9 in 50 overs against the tourists, the Proteas were indebted to a brilliant, career-best 138 not out from Quinton de Kock to keep them anywhere close to competitive.
When a heavy downpour brought welcome relief to the beleaguered farming community, the Proteas still needed another 150 to win from 14.3 overs.

It was possible, but only if De Kock had scored South Africa’s first one-day double century and if the lower order had contributed beyond anything previously seen.

It would be a fine and healthy situation if South Africa had a clutch of young, exciting pretenders hammering at the Proteas’ door. All-rounders with specific one-day bowling skills and the ability to hit boundaries against any attack. Specialist openers with eye-catching strike rates, and specialist bowlers who have honed their variations of delivery to keep pace with the strides made by batsmen.

England, for example, have packed their ODI team with the country’s cleanest ball strikers and, having lagged behind the pace of the rapidly changing limited-overs formats, have now leapt from the back of the queue to somewhere very near the front.

Such has been their determination to build an almost entirely separate one-day team from their Test team that Stuart Broad – the number one-ranked Test bowler in the world and a more than handy batsman – could not even crack the starting XI on Wednesday, having only made the squad as an injury replacement in the first place.

England’s mammoth score in Bloem was given the perfect start by some undisciplined and naive South African bowling, which allowed openers Alex Hales and Jason Roy to make a flying start at 10 runs an over and it became impossible to claw it back thereafter. No doubt the presence of the injured Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander may have limited the damage, as would the rested Kagiso Rabada, but the remainder of the national attack still looked worryingly thin.

Like South Africa and De Villiers, the England camp stuck with the tried and tested for years, decades even. They trusted what they knew. But once they had sunk as low as they could, they appointed former captain Andrew Strauss as director of cricket and threw caution to the wind. They literally had nothing to lose.

“We played ODI cricket in fear for well over a decade,” admitted another former captain, Nasser Hussain. “Then, finally, we picked all of the most exciting players in domestic cricket and gave them a captain, Eoin Morgan, who has no fear of losing. He pushes the boundaries and encourages the team to explore what is possible rather than settling for something which is satisfactory.”

In a different era, De Villiers’s suggestion of “comfort” in the current squad should set off alarm bells. The time might be right to introduce the young talent pushing and striving for international recognition, but the reality is different – and starkly so. There isn’t a single player currently on the domestic circuit who can claim, or even be perceived, to be harshly treated by his exclusion.

Domestic cricket is chugging along, battling with Cricket South Africa’s “aggressive transformation” commitment in the short term for what everybody hopes will be long-term gains. If South Africa ends up with a few dozen players of the quality of Rabada and Temba Bavuma, then world domination awaits. In the meantime, domestic franchises are concentrating on putting adequate teams on the field rather than challenging boundaries and driving the game forward.

The current national squad is comfortably the best South Africa has. All the country’s cricket lovers can hope for is that they become even better, and seek to keep up with the new generation of international cricketers – like England’s and India’s – because there isn’t anyone below them in the ranks ready to take over.

South Africa’s under-19 team won their International Cricket Council World Cup two years ago and Rabada is the most obvious product. This year they were eliminated in the first round after losing to Bangladesh and Namibia, and will play in the Plate competition with a best-case scenario of finishing ninth.

With De Villiers, Hashim Amla, De Kock, Steyn, Faf du Plessis and Morné Morkel, there is an excellent chance the Proteas can keep pace with the leading teams in the world, but the players are getting older and the other teams are being infused with youth every month. The gap is widening, even if we can’t see it immediately. Chances are we will soon.

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