Hardly helped by the batting looking much more ropey that it should – the Proteas have been bundled out for 175 and 140 in their last two ODIs against England and Sri Lanka respectively – captain AB de Villiers’s on-field plans are also being impeded by a lack of significant breakthrough capability among the bowlers.
The English batsmen made easy meat of their admittedly lightweight target in the ICC Champions Trophy semi-final at The Oval in mid-June, where Cape Town-born Jonathan Trott breezed his way to an unbeaten, run-a-ball 82, and Sri Lanka’s major stroke-players similarly feasted after batting first this time in the alarmingly one-sided first ODI in Colombo on Saturday.
Kumar Sangakkara, playing in his 350th ODI (taking him to joint eighth-highest on the all-time global list with retired spin-wizard compatriot Muttiah Muralitharan), used the landmark game to bludgeon his biggest score in the format yet, a majestic 169 off only 137 balls which left few South African bowlers with acceptable figures.
Particularly sobering was the rather effortless way in which he bedded down for his long vigil, as the Lankans blasted their premier ODI total against these opponents at home: he started reasonably cautiously, yet notably untroubled, and then unleashed a whirlwind of damaging boundaries as the team’s advance toward 320 reached a crescendo.
Sri Lanka almost always boasted a healthy crop of wickets in hand, which only aided the onslaught: they were 167 for two before they lost their third wicket in the 34th over, and 290 for just three at the start of the 48th, which was the perfect platform to really run riot at the death.
You had to have some sympathy for the Proteas attack in conditions as they were: hot and with the Subcontinent pitch typically loaded in favour of batting exploits – there is no doubt that South Africa, unexpectedly minus Hashim Amla, later seriously under-delivered in their reply bid.
But the awkward truth remains that, apart from isolated spells where the run rate was sometimes quite competently curtailed, it seldom looked as if the tourists were going to rock the Lankans back on their heels by claiming blue-chip batting scalps with any regularity.
Getting to business in the wickets column, of course, is usually a very good way of curbing rampant scoring rates, and coach Russell Domingo and his lieutenants are presumably working hard to find ways to dislodge the likes of master blasters Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene before they can find their formidable grooves.
Unless the pitches change fairly dramatically in character – that oughtn’t happen too greatly in Tuesday’s second clash (11:00) at the very same R Premadasa Stadium before the circus moves onward to Pallekele – the portents do not look particularly good for the Proteas to suddenly grab a stranglehold in this series with the ball.
They are clearly missing the striking qualities of Dale Steyn -- long-time pace partner Morne Morkel got himself together admirably after an iffy start on Saturday – although even the Phalaborwa Express boasts much more compelling Test career figures than he does at this level.
The still-novice Chris Morris had his most traumatic outing to date, going for 80 runs in nine overs, although such experiences can constitute valuable learning, and the normally gritty Lions man doesn’t yet deserve to be sidelined – his “bouncebackability” must instead be put to a rigorous examination on Tuesday, I feel.
Maybe there will be a tactical change, with one of the two fairly ineffectual left-arm spinners making way on Tuesday for someone like Rory Kleinveldt (or Lonwabo Tsotsobe if deemed fit enough), although which of Robin Peterson or Aaron Phangiso to jettison represents something of a headache should that possibility be considered.
Peterson is the senior spinner and his batting has been full of confidence and a welcome daredevil streak in recent times, but Phangiso was slightly the better of the two and bowled more overs as a result in Saturday’s heavy reverse.
There is a feeling in some circles that the current Proteas side might benefit from the genuinely fearsome, if still rather raw pace of Marchant de Lange, while cries inevitably also continue to go up for a recall to the ODI fray for Test sensation Vernon Philander – that clamour will only increase if the attack continues to take “tap” in Sri Lanka.
The last-named player is operating for Kent in English county cricket at present, although slightly tempering news in his case is that in his last two four-day Championship matches, he has gone unusually wicketless in a personal tally of 64 overs.
*A fair amount of rain is tipped for Colombo during Tuesday’s second ODI.
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