Will the real Tsotsobe stand up

Sport24 columnist Antoinette Muller (File)
Sport24 columnist Antoinette Muller (File)
A week is a long time in cricket, or so they say.

Lonwabo Tsotsobe and South Africa didn’t even need a week to pull their fingers out and come back from a rather dodgy spell of bowling against India in their opening ICC Champions Trophy fixture on June 6.

Against Pakistan on Monday, the South Africans looked a completely different side to the one which lost against India. Barring a few absurd run outs and the batsmen, aside from Hashim Amla, not quite managing to dig in their heels, the team looked a far more complete unit. The bowlers all performed out of their skins, rookie Chris Morris had a dream debut and Ryan McLaren continued to play as if his life depended on it.

Tsotsobe, though, was particularly impressive. 

Not entirely because of his figures, but in the way he improved his tactics and how mature he was in leading the attack.

With both Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel ruled out through injury it was up to him to assume responsibility and become the spearhead of the attack. For all the flak Tsotsobe has taken in the last few months - ranging from being unfit and lazy to somebody who doesn’t look like he ever should have played international cricket - he looked quite the opposite on Monday.

But how does such a dramatic turnaround happen in such a short period of time?

One argument is that, when he has nowhere to hide and he is given the responsibility of leading the attack, Tsotsobe will shine. Perhaps he likes having his ego stroked and being the spearhead gives him that opportunity, but that’s not quite true.

Tsotsobe's statistics are far better when bowling alongside both Steyn and Morkel. He's featured alongside both of them in 19 matches, taken 33 wickets at an average of 22.90 - a touch under his overall average of 23.66. In the eight matches he played without them, his average is 23.80 - and he has taken just 10 wickets.

Who he plays with clearly has little to do with how well Tsotsobe does. How well he adjusts to conditions, however, does. The conditions on Monday suited him perfectly and bowling against batsmen already lacking in confidence helped too, but it’s thinking a bit further which really helped him up his game. 

While his mandate will always be to bowl fast, sometimes just bowling fast isn’t quite good enough and, unfortunately for Tsotsobe, he’s not the kind of player who can get away with just bowling fast. When bowling fast and short against India yielded no rewards, there was no Plan B, but against Pakistan everything changed.

He executed slower balls with perfect precision, something which seems to suit him far better than trying to be a big, scary, fast bowler. He didn't quite manage the perfect toe-crunching yorker against Pakistan, but he did manage to vary his speeds and keep the lengths tight.

He landed most of his deliveries in the six metre area and both his wickets came from the slower ball, proving just how effective of a delivery it can be. It’s a good skill to have and when combined with knowing how to use it in the right conditions, it can be devastating.

Tsotsobe has fallen from grace with resounding thud in the last few months - after being the No 1- ranked bowler in one-day internationals just a few months ago, he’s now ranked fifth and he while he remains inconsistent, to entirely write him off would be foolish. 

He faces another big test against the West Indies on Friday. Their batsmen struggled against Mohammed Irfan in their opening fixture and didn’t do much better against India on Tuesday, so the Islanders will be ripe for the picking. Even if Dale Steyn manages to return to fitness, Tsotsobe’s role will still be crucial, he has to build the pressure  and be content with not always getting his rewards in wickets.

In the 27 matches the two have played together, Tsotsobe has taken 45 wickets, at an average of 24.86, but statistics are like a sock puppet, if you reach far enough, you can make them say anything.

Far more important than the statistical analysis is that Tsotsobe adjusts to the Cardiff conditions and fills the role of pressure builder so that West Indies’ undoing can come through their inability to remain patient. Two new balls up front will be in his favour and if  the forecast remains as it is - with cloud cover predicted - the conditions should be too.

One good performance doth not a brilliant player make, but if Lopsy, as he is affectionately known, can replicate even an inch of the performance he pulled out of nowhere on Monday, he could be well poised to go back to being his destructive best. If only he ensures he keeps his ego in check...

Antoinette Muller is a freelance writer who writes mainly about soccer and cricket for The Daily Maverick or anybody else who will have her...

Sport24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on Sport24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Sport24.
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