Proteas spin their way back into form
South Africa have produced the best and the worst of the cricket played during the Caribbean triangular series – which is preferable to being monotonously predictable and average. The high-class demolition of hosts West Indies on Wednesday suggests the Proteas can still thrash anybody on a good day.
Hashim Amla’s 23rd one-day international (ODI) hundred and the best bowling figures by a South African from Imran Tahir gave the scorecard a familiar look, but once again the effect of Tabraiz Shamsi was felt almost throughout the West Indian run chase.
Cricketers are naturally cautious beasts, but in their unguarded moments they purr with delight at having not one but two bowlers in the starting XI with the ability to spin the ball both ways.
Tahir may have claimed a remarkable 7-45 in just nine overs but left-arm wrist spinner Shamsi could – and might in the future – have claimed similar numbers. To have one mystery bowler in the starting XI is a bonus; having two is a luxury bordering on greedy.
Such is the competitive nature of the three-nation tournament that South Africa moved from struggling to keep up in third place to top of the log with two bonus points and now needing to win just one of the two remaining league games in Barbados to make sure they reach the final on that island next weekend.
The next global event on the ODI calendar is a year away, which means that the current series in the Caribbean doesn’t quite fall into the catchment area of “exciting previews” for the International Cricket Council (ICC) Champions Trophy in England next June, but at least it is proving to be both competitive and intriguing.
Dreadfully slow pitches in Guyana produced closely fought, soporific contests in which the Proteas were dismantled by the West Indies mystery spinner Sunil Narine before launching their own three-man spin attack against Australia to earn a bonus-point victory. But Warner Park in St Kitts has provided altogether different conditions.
All three teams have looked rusty at times, which is partly owed to playing nothing but T20 cricket for the past three months but also because they are proving surprisingly slow to adapt to the changes in playing regulations following last year’s World Cup.
Even the most seasoned professionals aren’t yet able to see the effects of the changes, let alone accurately assess them. The impact that two new balls has on final totals is still being evaluated – often inaccurately – and the changes to field restrictions, although six months old, are only being felt now.
Australia’s batsmen, particularly, seem stuck in the gluttony of the World Cup where just four fielders were permitted on the boundary for the final 10 overs and boundaries flowed. Indeed, it was an intrinsic part of South Africa’s game plan to keep wickets in hand for the final power play and bank on scoring at least 100 runs. Now, a run a ball at the death seems more like par.
Usman Khawaja and Steve Smith scored 98 from 123 balls and 74 from 95 deliveries respectively with strike rates in the 70s to lead their team to a wholly inadequate 265-7 at the diminutive Warner Park in St Kitts, and subsequently lost to the hosts with almost five overs to spare. They had posted an almost equally below-par score against South Africa, who reached 210-3 in reply before collapsing.
Some observers suggested the Australians were merely overconfident and underestimated their opposition. The truth is that they simply miscalculated.
The ICC’s desire to redress the balance between bat and ball appears to have been successful, judging by the tournament so far. The pacing of innings, it seems, having become a refined science for all the top teams for many years, needs to be readdressed and reassessed. Different game plans need to be introduced and the thinking of previous years must be discarded.
South Africa’s decision to send Chris Morris in as a pinch-hitter at number three was a sign that they were prepared to stay ahead of the game. It paid off in fine style with 40 from 26 balls, which allowed AB de Villiers and Faf du Plessis to post a total way beyond the means of the West Indies – or any other team, for that matter.
It may have come from a need, or desire, to create artificial “depth” in the batting line-up – which is possible after the huge opening partnership posted by Amla and Quinton de Kock – but it also showed a willingness to break away from the conventional strategies that can make 50-over cricket so predictable and stifling.
Whether it is the third, fourth or fifth “coming” of Waleed Parnell doesn’t matter – the fact that he now, finally, looks settled and comfortable on the international stage is all that really matters. Perhaps expectations were always too high after Parnell made his Proteas debut just six months out of school. That was a remarkable eight years ago.
Now he is settled, personally and professionally, and looks likely and capable of making match-winning contributions with bat and ball.
As much as the Proteas starting XI looks familiar, there have been plenty of changes. There’s no Steyn, Philander or Morkel, the bowling mainstay just a year ago. They will be back for the Tests against New Zealand in August but, for now, they are not missed.