Misfiring frontline

2013-11-01 00:00

CAPE TOWN — Freak fight-back win, yes … but South Africa continue to be marooned in one-day international mediocrity by the all-too-regular failure of their frontline batting line-up.

The Proteas were basking in unlikely glory on Wednesday night after their amazing Sharjah jailbreak in the first of five one-day internationals against Pakistan, although you might also argue that they were able to simply walk out from their incarceration because of the quite peculiar late-shift incompetence of the prison warders, as it were.

This venue has seen a few “scarcely believable” — words used by more than one television commentator afterwards — limited-overs contests in its time, to the extent that Sharjah actually disappeared off the international roster for several years because of perceptions that it was a hotbed of betting-related skulduggery.

I am certain some cynics will be muttering that little seems to have changed after this crazy fixture, which the South Africans somehow clinched by one run after their jaw-dropping rout of the Pakistani lower order.

Be that as it may, AB de Villiers’s team have gone 1-0 up against just about all odds and will certainly take several positives into the quick-turnaround second ODI in Dubai today (again 1 pm SA time).

Even if they had been edged out in the end, which looked for all money the likeliest outcome for five-sixths of the contest, the Proteas put up a gritty display in the field — all five of their main bowlers played very meaningful parts.

But the fact does remain that they stuttered with the blade to an alarming degree once more after taking first strike and being bowled out for 183, one ball shy of 50 overs.

The fairytale outcome would almost certainly not have been possible had it not been for a thoroughly commendable 52-run partnership for the ninth wicket between Wayne Parnell and Lonwabo Tsotsobe that gave South Africa the sniff of an upset they needed.

Before that, a total well short of 150 had beckoned alarmingly, first from a situation of 63 for five when key figure De Villiers exited for only four and then again at 129 for eight — at that point the team’s worst ever previous score after batting first against these opponents (163 at Karachi) had looked a long way away.

But in a game where both a rejuvenated Parnell and the lanky, very unlikely Tsotsobe ticked boxes as all-rounders, that alliance was worth a considerable weight in gold.

Parnell played with a fine combination of watchfulness and often wristy, calculated aggression, en route to a maiden half-century in the format, whilst it was so pleasing to see Tsotsobe — often charged with being a liability both as batsman and fielder, particularly if he is not firing at his main trade — show brilliant application at the other end in a 42-ball personal vigil for 16 not out.

Much head-scratching remains, however, about SA’s top-end batting, with three customers in their current “front five” under ongoing clouds, a situation only aggravated by the continued unavailability of Hashim Amla to restore much-needed stability.

His effective replacement as ODI opener on Wednesday, Colin Ingram, suffered the mortifying experience of bagging his third duck in a row (first England, then Sri Lanka, now Pakistan), although he has an unlucky penchant for often being undone by relative snorters as happened here.

Still, the left-hander — one of so many in the ranks right now — has a deflating five noughts from his last 11 knocks in ODIs and that can’t be marvellous for confidence purposes.

There are still more questions than answers about JP Duminy’s stationing at first drop: he has now gone six innings in a run of opportunities at No. 3, and only really come off once — 97 at Pallekele, but several wishy-washy 15s and 20s as well.

An even more burgeoning problem is the gradual demise of Faf du Plessis as a scoring factor in this arena; remember that he is now labouring in Tests as well.

He had already found the going tough in Sri Lanka in mid-year, with 57 runs from five innings, and Wednesday’s 12 — he might have been out a couple of times earlier in the knock, too — hardly suggested markedly better fortunes lie just around the corner.

Du Plessis averages 27 after 43 ODIs, still with a moderate top score of 72, which does make you wonder, sadly, whether he justifies a place in a top five, or even a spot at all.

But the Proteas, collectively, do at least boast a winning start to this series, and should be thinking that if they could bat that uninspiringly and still get over the line, anything is possible.

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