If Temba Bavuma was under any illusions – and the pragmatic Proteas’ new white ball captain is not one for fantasy – about the hard work ahead for him and his team, his first game in charge would have driven home the message.
While the fighting spirit that saw the Proteas stretch the lost first one-day international (ODI) against Pakistan to the final ball of the contest in Centurion on Friday is to be commended, the 99.5 overs that preceded it gave broad hints as to why South Africa has joined its current opposition as one of the most unpredictable, if not infuriating, teams in international cricket.
In a game in which the two teams took turns trying to hand each other the win, the lessons for Bavuma would have been plentiful. Said “learnings” – as sportspeople like to call them – could be split into two: those that need nipping in the bud and those of the encouraging kind.
Of the things that need to be cut out during the Proteas’ innings, the batting digging a hole for the bowlers to get them out of by defending below-par totals, thanks to their two explosive openers (Quinton de Kock and Aiden Markram) getting starts and not converting – and the captain gifting his wicket to the opposition – should be top of the agenda.
The batting line-up in Centurion (De Kock, Markram, Bavuma, Rassie van der Dussen, David Miller, Heinrich Klaasen and Andile Phehlukwayo) brimmed with intent, but only Van der Dussen (123 not out from 134 balls) and Miller (50 off 56) lived up to the billing.
Klaasen and Phehlukwayo are a peculiar pairing.
The 29-year-old Klaasen’s 18 ODI caps suggest infrequent opportunities, while Phehlukwayo’s 59 at almost five years the wicketkeeper/batsman’s junior have yielded the kind of sporadic results that make them two sides of the same coin, if you will.
The Titans man appears to play like one who does not know when his next opportunity will come along, instead of playing to ensure that it does, while his Dolphins counterpart seems to consider his runs for the team as much a bonus as they were when he was first capped as a 20-year-old.
Van der Dussen’s and Miller’s performances were a confirmation of the known in the former’s case (that he is a lighthouse when the waters get choppy) and maybe the unknown in the latter’s – that he may finally have the maturity to marry situational awareness with that explosiveness of his.
As good as the bowling attack was to begin with, where Kagiso Rabada and Lungi Ngidi gave nothing up front, a tendency to remove its foot from the opposition’s throat was as responsible for Pakistan’s massive second-wicket partnership (177) between Imam-ul-Haq (70 off 80) and Babar Azam (103 off 104) as the latter’s brilliance was.
The conditions were certainly better for batting in the second innings of the match, but the hosts’ bowling does have a tendency to go walkabout mentally.
So does its fielding, which gave Azam a life after he had faced only 17 balls in his peerless innings.
To be sure, it was a difficult chance, but there was a time when South Africa’s fielding specialised in snaring the tough ones.
Now one has to admit to hoping for the best – as was shown by Van der Dussen dropping Pakistan’s finisher, Shadab Khan, and catching him at the death.
What would have encouraged Bavuma was the knowledge that he has the kind of firepower at his disposal where he can literally instruct Anrich Nortje to go for the jugular and have the lightning-fast bowler put in the nasty spell, which yielded figures of 5-0-20-4.
And having Ngidi and Phehlukwayo literally come alive with the game on the line – knowing what Rabada can do too, when he’s on it – would have helped Bavuma sleep better.
Today’s game (suddenly a must-win pink ODI at the Wanderers, because this is a three-match series) is another reason he won’t have slept a wink overnight.
All told, welcome to captaining a South African cricket team.