Limited overs at it should be

2012-02-23 00:00

CAPE TOWN — If the Proteas are to continue to be lumped with the inevitable, history-based charge of mental frailty in broader terms, at least have the decency to exclude their T20 unit from such culpability, please.

For the second T20 series in succession, the national team have plucked back their honour from the very brink of the precipice, courtesy of an astonishing three-run victory over New Zealand in Auckland yesterday.

And in this instance South Africa won the tightly fought three-match series as a result, an outcome which has seen them nose up to second in the ICC’s T20 global rankings, with the Black Caps dropping two palces to fourth.

It is hardly the worst development from a morale point of view, considering that in seven months or so another ICC World Twenty20 is to be held, this time in Sri Lanka.

In the final match of their last T20 series, a two-game home encounter against Australia, the Proteas looked similarly dead and buried, but thanks to freak eighth-wicket batting heroics from Wayne Parnell and Rusty Theron, somehow got over the line to share the honours 1-1.

Let’s face it, for all the imperfections extremely evident on each occasion, these are anything but hallmarks of a team of chokers.

In the aftermath of a highly eventful, often quirky encounter at Eden Park, many South Africans would have taken cheeky pleasure in hearing someone other than, for instance, the late Hansie Cronje, Shaun Pollock or Graeme Smith say after a limited-overs sizzler: “When the pressure came on we were found wanting. We’ve got to look hard at ourselves … about how you put teams away.”

The speaker in this instance was, of course, the stunned New Zealand captain, Brendon McCullum.

And how refreshing, too, to hear one of the home-based television commentators laud the Proteas: “Your boys did it because you didn’t lose your heads.”

With a bit of luck, claw-back-from-the-brink performances like this one will send positive currents through all forms of the Proteas’ game, and certainly provide a big tonic for the forthcoming ODI and Test series in the Land of the Long White Cloud.

South Africa, after all, had looked well beaten at various stages of the decider, including right up to the end of the 18th over when the host nation needed only 10 runs to prevail with six wickets in hand.

But somehow established old fox Johan Botha and then an unlikely “death duty” hero in Marchant de Lange conjured up cool-headed overs to strangle the life out of the once-chirpy New Zealanders.

Botha, who won the man-of-the-match award, underlined his reputation as the country’s best limited-overs spinner and effectively highlighted anew the mystery of why he saw no action at all during the home ODI series against Sri Lanka.

As for De Lange, playing only his third T20 match of any sort and second for South Africa, his three-run last over and snaring of two wickets was an incredible achievement after the speed merchant had travelled for 33 runs in his first three. It seemed to confirm captain AB de Villiers’s enthusiastic after-match statement that De Lange “has got the big match temperament”. (And yes, maybe we can now even excuse him that potentially hugely expensive no-ball in the frenzied finish!)

De Lange reminds me very much of a young Dale Steyn — fast, loose and still raw, but with abundant potential in the eyes of discerning followers of the game.

It is good that he is taking these educative, baby steps for his country because it may not be too long before he is establishing himself in all three major formats; we have already seen glimpses of what he offers in the five-day game.

The strapping athlete is one of those pacemen who gets into a high-paced groove immediately, very seldom slipping below 140 km/h and perhaps with the potential and bodily ability to test the 150-mark extremely regularly in a year or two.

Let’s not kid ourselves: the elements of fortuitousness that characterised this win and the previous one against the Aussies at the Wanderers earlier this season indicate that South African T20 strategy and team composition remain quite heavily a work in progress.

It is difficult not to escape a suspicion that the current line-up is a little too loaded in favour of a wide array of bowling options, to the detriment of a momentum-retaining batting order.

In Auckland the Proteas again came up some 20 runs shy of where they really needed to be in terms of a competitive total, and lost plenty of oomph once designated big-hitters like Richard Levi and the elevated Albie Morkel, unusually occupying the number three spot, were quickly back in the hut.

In the field South Africa were erratic in both catching and throwing, while too many of the seam bowlers went through costly fits of losing their line in a bad way, to the chagrin of Allan Donald.

Gee, though, pulling this one from the fire, under the circumstances, is well worth celebrating.

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