Cape Town – Lower-order all-rounders Ryan McLaren and Wayne Parnell look increasingly tenuous as World Cup 2015 options for South Africa.
At best, the pair may now be fighting for one berth in the squad for the global tournament from mid-February although neither, in truth, advanced his claims for a passage there during the just completed 4-1 ODI series hammering at the hands of Australia on some of the very terrain that will stage CWC contests.
Although they made heavy weather of chasing down their target in the final fixture at the Sydney Cricket Ground on Sunday, the Aussies at one stage looked like romping to victory and the five-match combat will have left the Proteas’ brains trust with plenty of thinking to do.
Many experts and enthusiasts back home had initially fancied AB de Villiers’s side to win the series, so the eventual outcome was something of a wake-up call as Australia slipped happily into top spot on the ODI rankings and SA were left in third, also behind India.
One silver lining was that several of the matches were closely-contested for the most part, so the Proteas should remain a fair enough bet for elusive World Cup honours, despite the historical jinx that still burdens them.
It was also true that they played the entire series without key middle-order batting factor and off-spinner JP Duminy and also came within a fight-back whisker of pinching the last game at the SCG without the services of rampantly in-form skipper De Villiers.
Then again, Australia played the lion’s share of the itinerary minus such figures as Michael Clarke and Mitchell Johnson, so they similarly didn’t have their maximum-strength arsenal a lot of the time.
It was a series in which really only one South African, the world’s top-ranked ODI batsman De Villiers, consistently sparkled individually – 271 runs in four games at an average of 67.75 – and that went some way to explaining the Proteas’ woes.
No compatriot came close to him for batting excellence statistically, although it was encouraging that in creeping up to second on the averages (177 runs at 35.40), young Quinton de Kock registered progressively bigger scores with just about every game and it culminated in a maiden century for him Down Under in Sunday’s dead rubber nail-biter.
He is clearly a suitably fast learner about Australasian conditions and it could stand him in good stead for a productive World Cup.
Speaking of the global get-together, the Proteas may reasonably expect better showings there than in the latest series from staple figures like Hashim Amla (series average 31.20) and particularly Faf du Plessis, whose highest score was 31 and average ended as low as 19.40.
On a more positive note, accomplished knocks in the fifth ODI from both Farhaan Behardien (a breath of fresh air for aggression in the closing overs) and Rilee Rossouw saw them mount timely charges for CWC spots – they may still hope to nail down things in the looming home series against West Indies.
South Africa’s bowling averages from this series looked pretty humdrum collectively, with Vernon Philander topping them for his six wickets at 21.83 and respectable economy of 4.51 in three outings.
Though imperfect at times himself, Kyle Abbott probably slightly advanced his claims for an ongoing seam bowling berth in two steady appearances – he looks the Proteas’ coolest head for important “death” duty.
Morne Morkel was typically, frustratingly enigmatic in this series, following up a career-best 5/21 in the second WACA game with greatly less impressive figures of 2/84 and 2/69 in two further matches.
But perhaps the two biggest losers in the series were really the bowling all-rounders, McLaren and Parnell, who frankly lacked X-factor either with the ball or bat, even if opportunities at the latter trade were often more limited for them.
It is not as though they are finding their feet at this level, as they sport almost 100 ODI caps now between them, but just seem to have flat-lined of late in the national strip.
McLaren, especially, has gone seriously off the boil at a bad time, after looking so integral to the 50-overs side several months back: in the Aussie series he registered unflattering figures of 1/166 in 26 overs at an economy rate of well over six runs to the over and he was also expensive in one ODI bowl during the New Zealand mini-series immediately preceding this one.
That is a concern given that the World Cup is staged jointly by those very two countries.
If South Africa decide from here to assemble a side comprising best possible specialist batsmen and then take a not dissimilar approach to bowling strategy, then both these currently “bitty” and tentative yet supposedly versatile customers may well be endangered.
Parnell and McLaren had better hope like hell that they get opportunities against the Caribbean visitors in the next few weeks to lift their performance curves decisively ... or both might miss the flight back across the Indian Ocean in late summer, even if you suspect there may still be one ticket to wrestle for between them.
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing