In & Out: Counting chickens, busting nuts

Described by Proteas skipper AB de Villiers as an exercise in “acclimatising” and “doing the basics well”, the recently completed ODI series in New Zealand proved to be something of a healthy learning curve for South Africa ahead of the World Cup, which takes place in Australia and New Zealand in just more than 100 days’ time.

They won the three-match series 2-0 and showed some grit to counter a cheesy #ProteaFire ad campaign ahead of their current tour down under.

Never looking like they would let the advantage slip, the South Africans welcomed valuable contributions from several key players: De Villiers with 89* and JP Duminy with 58* in the first match, Hashim Amla with an unfaltering 119 supported by 67 from Faf du Plessis in the second, and a quickfire 80* from Quinton de Kock in the rained-out third and final ODI in Hamilton.

It was a solid performance by the Proteas, who ascended to number one in the International Cricket Council ODI rankings to boast top spots in two of the sport’s three formats.

They currently sit third in the T20 rankings, but that too might change after the gruelling challenge that lies ahead of them against Australia, beginning on Wednesday.

Judging by the top form the Proteas have displayed so far in all formats this season, it would be fair to say they are the form side – in other words, the side to beat at the World Cup.

But how many times have we seen that?

The Proteas are no strangers to lofty rankings. They’ve gone into many tournaments with the odds stacked in their favour. But more often than not, when victory seems probable, they somehow manage to buck their winning trend and catch the early flight home.

A case in point: the last time the Proteas graced the pinnacle of ODI rankings was in September 2009, only to be toppled later that month when they failed to progress beyond the first round of the ICC Champions Trophy.

Indeed, they were the favourites going into that tournament, but their apparent allergy to silverware kicked in and not even a home advantage could coax them into setting their sights on victory.

Things might be slightly different now, given De Villiers’ clear showing of determination, the very noticeable cohesion in his team, and the fact that among them are the two top ODI batsmen in the world (De Villiers and Amla, respectively) as well as the third-best ODI bowler (Dale Steyn, who’s ranked tops in the test format).

That De Villiers assessed playing conditions in New Zealand – where most of the Proteas’ World Cup group games are scheduled to be played – down to the subtleties is comforting.

He was quoted in the week as saying: “It was important for us to acclimatise to the surroundings – getting used to flying here, the jet lag, the crowds, even the food?...?Little things that you get used to are important. If you do it for the first time, it’s almost a culture shock.”

It goes to show there’s more to him than belting out Afrikaans pop ballads and individual playing achievements.

This said, one can’t help but get a sense the Proteas might be peaking too soon, or a

sense they might have already busted their proverbial nut.

Perhaps it’s the cynic in me, but showing and telling in series – even against tough opposition like Sri Lanka, Australia and New Zealand – is not the clearest indication of how a side will perform in a high-pressure tournament situation.

But I guess the issue of “peaking too soon” in sports in general is one of conjecture residing in the realm of the absurd.

All we can do now is wait and see what happens in the imminent series against Australia and, as legendary former Springbok coach Peter de Villiers would say, not count those World Cup chickens before they come home to roost.

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