Cape Town – Just one injury or illness problem to a staple batting figure could be enough to significantly imperil the Proteas’ cause at the short, high-intensity ICC Champions Trophy.
Rightly or wrongly, South Africa’s selectors stuck with their allrounder-heavy policy that has served the team notably well in recent times when they named the 15 for the tournament.
But what it also meant was that if there is any disturbance at short notice to their established top six, the reserve cupboard in specialist batting is glaringly limited.
To put it bluntly, that cupboard contains one member: Farhaan Behardien.
The oft-maligned partial all-rounder – he bowls a bit of gentle medium-pace to supplement his middle-order strokeplay, albeit very sporadically – is often enough a commanding factor in domestic one-day cricket, but he near-routinely fails to thoroughly convince at the higher level even after 56 ODIs and some five years of international experience for the Proteas.
In stark statistical terms, the 33-year-old Behardien is likely to be one of the least heavyweight individuals as “next cab off the rank” for a team in a straight batting sense at the Champions Trophy.
In fairness, there are times when he produces under-rated cameos with either bat (more often) or ball, and he can be a useful horses-for-courses pick in certain SA combinations or when conditions – like a slow, gripping pitch – suit his set of capabilities.
But with no Rilee Rossouw (Kolpak contract) around these days to create significantly heavier pressure for spots amidst the front six, Behardien is the lone peripheral option if the Proteas are required to replace one batsman directly with another.
Just for example, if a seasoned, “gun” player like captain AB de Villiers (9 299 ODI runs at 54.38) or Hashim Amla (7 032 at 50.22) were to be sidelined for any reason, there is an acute surrender of weight, figures-wise, if Behardien is roped in.
That would probably be the case for any replacement in relation to those two, both of them extraordinary – rarely so -- players.
But it is impossible not to fear that South Africa are at the risk of losing more crease firepower than any other frontline nation would if a major batsman “goes down”.
Behardien brings more of a work-it-around approach, and potential usefulness as a partner to a more “in” batsman at advanced stages of an innings, than he offers genuine clout as a heavy scorer from a premier slot.
I like to see him do well because he seems a loyal, uncomplaining and devoted sort of squad man who soaks in pretty regular criticism stoically; he hardly lacks a determination not to let the side down.
But it is nevertheless problematic that he is not a proven heavy contributor to the ODI batting cause: the right-hander has never bettered 70 (against New Zealand, Potchefstroom) in Proteas “greens” and only just averages 30 – albeit that you cannot quibble at all with his rosy career strike rate of 97.
In the case of tournament host nation and most recent Proteas-conquerors England, for instance, their current “surplus” batsman is a certain Jonny Bairstow, a far more comfortable fit anywhere in a top six than Behardien on a performance-judged basis, with respect.
The Yorkshireman did get a place in the dead-rubber fixture against South Africa at Lord’s on Monday, when England rested some core personnel, and promptly top-scored with a fighting 51 from No 5 after taking guard at a precious 15 for three (quickly to become 20 for six as well).
He has now made half-centuries in three of his last four ODI innings … and still his spot in the first team is not assured!
Bairstow has notched 647 runs at 38.05 in 26 ODIs, with a career best thus far of 83 not out against New Zealand at Chester-le-Street, but bear in mind also that he is a dangerous Test batsman, providing further proof of his broad international mettle.
The firm-striking right-hander averages 41 from 38 Tests, including a premier effort of 167 not out against Sri Lanka and another 150 not out against South Africa in a famously savage alliance with Ben Stokes at Newlands not much more than a year back.
Behardien will scrap as best he can if summoned to the Proteas’ mix; he usually does, and his harsher detractors suspiciously overlook his contributions when he does chip in valuably.
But a potential match-winner or notably influential figure on any red-letter day? His track record regrettably suggests a limited likelihood.
The Proteas do not want disturbance to their first-team batting status quo …
*Rob Houwing will be attending the Champions Trophy for Sport24. Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing