Proteas still seek cold ‘killer’

Ryan McLaren (AFP)
Ryan McLaren (AFP)
Cape Town - The pluses far outweigh any negatives as the South African one-day international machine continues on its largely merry way.

The Proteas are off to a rollicking start to their latest, three-match series in New Zealand, having thumped the Black Caps by six wickets at Mount Maunganui on Tuesday and with almost two overs to spare.

Home captain Brendon McCullum felt the outcome was a tad flattering to South Africa; the eventual margin on paper will probably always starkly suggest otherwise.

AB de Villiers’s side can strike for an early series triumph in the second clash at the same picturesque venue on Friday, already fuelled by knowledge that they have won their last three bilateral series plus a triangular in Zimbabwe which also involved the ever-competitive Australians.

As things stand, the Proteas are on firm ground for a forceful challenge at the Australasian-staged World Cup in a few months, and should go into it largely clear of personnel spooked by previous, advanced-stage failures in the tournament.

But the lead-up to a CWC is also as fitting a time as any to quite harshly place shortcomings under the microscope - and at least one that has dogged the team for a couple of years flared up again on Tuesday.

It is, in a nutshell, the strong feeling South African enthusiasts get that as the “death” overs of the opposition innings get nearer, so efficiencies in the field - especially by the bowlers - start to unravel to a crucial degree.

The phenomenon was glaringly apparent here, as New Zealand were allowed to wriggle off the hook from a parlous position of 156 for nine after 34.4 overs - call that a technical knockout? - to total an infinitely more defendable 230 after 10 further overs that haemorrhaged 74 runs.

This late, chaotic and admittedly sometimes charmed onslaught saw both Luke Ronchi (who would not have been too heartbroken by dismissal on 99 as even a half-century looked like eluding him before the blitz) and No 11 Trent Boult record personal best knocks in the format.

At least Ronchi is a “proper” batsman, and played some blazing strokes as he got onto a roll to an increasing extent; less forgivable from a Proteas point of view was the way Boult - previous best ODI innings five - was able to slash an unbeaten 21 and play an invaluable support role to his more senior ally.

He rode his luck, as tailenders so often do, and the frustrating thing was that he showed little willingness to get in line against the quicker men, often stepping away from the stumps outrageously to the on-side.

It cried out for someone to target the timber much more than the SA attack did, and spear in a few yorkers which seemed strangely elusive.

As De Villiers said afterwards: “All in all, I’m very happy with the performance ... but (thinking) World Cup ... if you get teams nine down in 35 overs you must finish them off.”

The Proteas put out a well-stocked seam arsenal on Tuesday, comprising Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel for genuine “shock” menace and then the more subtle medium-pace skills of Vernon Philander and Ryan McLaren.

The last-named player had rather an off day, going for almost 30 runs in his first three overs which put him on the back foot, but the others bowled with good purpose and intensity at times.

Once again, though, it was difficult to escape an impression that all of the quartet are more comfortable closing out their spells ahead of “rush hour”, where a really willing death operator remains absent.

There was just enough nip in the slow surface up front to have Philander come into his own straight away - dismissing both openers in his tight first six overs - but he is vulnerable to later assault, as occurred when he came back for a solitary over and leaked 18 runs including a sequence of six, four and six to a flying Ronchi.

What seems crucial in the next few months, in an otherwise generally settled and smooth-firing combination, is for the Proteas to clearly identify someone - whether inside or outside the current XI - to perform the tricky death chore regularly even if he suffers bouts of pain in doing so; all death bowlers occasionally do.

Outsiders presently looking in include Wayne Parnell, Kyle Abbott and - back home - the seriously pacey but sometimes wayward Marchant de Lange; it is difficult to include Lonwabo Tsotsobe in any discussion of death bowling because he is a particular case of a bowler who needs to get the lion’s share of his overs out of the way at the front when the ball is harder.

It is worth asking the question “what has happened to Rusty Theron?”

Not too many years ago, and with cool, keen death customers like Andrew Hall and Charl Langeveldt slowly winding down their lengthy careers, he seemed a bit of an heir apparent for the job for the Proteas.

He last played at ODI level in 2010, but any signs domestically of Theron, still only 29 and also no mug with a bat, showing form for his Warriors franchise, if fit, should arguably be noted with renewed vigilance.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing
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