Back to reality for Proteas

Tillakaratne Dilshan and Faf du Plessis (AFP)
Tillakaratne Dilshan and Faf du Plessis (AFP)
Cape Town – It was probably in South Africa’s longer-term interests that they failed to complete a clean sweep of Sri Lanka in the three-match Twenty20 international series in Hambantota on Tuesday.

Victory in the dead-rubber match might well have had the effect of papering over the still glaringly obvious cracks in the Proteas’ limited-overs game as a whole.

Had they indeed won 3-0 -- instead of the eventual 2-1 outcome after Tillakaratne Dilshan’s typically flamboyant and outrageous match-winning contribution at the crease in the final contest – the temptation might have existed to assume the country is further down the road to one-day cricket revival than is actually the case.

Slightly over-imaginative South African fans, after all, would probably have tried to labour the point that the country ended up 'sharing; the combination of one-day internationals and T20 fixtures 4-4 ... a decent sort of outcome for most teams in the eternally taxing environment of Sri Lanka.

Instead it finished, if you did nominally decide to lump both formats together, really a more appropriate 5-3 in the host nation’s favour, acting as a sharp enough reminder – especially bearing in mind the convincing 4-1 ‘Lankan domination of the more important ODI business – that much work lies ahead to return the Proteas to a broad limited-overs force to be reckoned with.

Let’s face it, the dubious overnight leap South Africa would have made from fifth on the ICC T20 rankings to second, had they managed to clean up on Tuesday, would have had a deceptive look to it, given that the Proteas have never shown any significant signs of global dominance or consistency in the most compressed international code.

In their last T20 mini-series, after all, at home to Pakistan last season, the visitors seized the spoils courtesy of a thumping win at Centurion with one washout at Kingsmead.

Following the Sri Lankans’ cavalier, nothing-to-lose chase to triumph at Hambantota, achieved with as many as 11 balls to spare despite the tough initial ask, they cling to top berth on the ladder with the Proteas now similarly unchanged in fifth.

What we should all do is acknowledge the pleasing little steps the inspiring Faf du Plessis and his charges made in very pluckily prevailing 2-1, considering the potential for the wheels coming off after the ODI near-slaughter.

The captain himself may well be a slightly bewildered individual as the Proteas begin the trek homeward: his long-time limited-overs struggle with the bat continued during the first two contests, yet they won them both, and then when he found quite sublime personal touch at last on Tuesday, he ended up making the losing skipper’s speech at the obligatory televised post-match presentation.

Du Plessis comfortably eclipsed by 20 runs his previous highest T20 international score in lashing a majestic 85 off 65 balls – including some drives that could hardly be bettered for decisiveness and timing – and also even bettering his best ODI total of 72, oddly from far more opportunities.

It was just the kind of imperious, truly dominating innings he needed, and he was massively aided by another excellent contribution from JP Duminy, later the obvious choice for player of the series.

Still, as things appeared to go so swimmingly for South Africa while they revelled (or at least that’s what they thought they were doing!) yet again in batting first, certain ongoing failings did take root once more.

The very top of the innings, a situation repeated in the earlier ODI phase, remains an area of deep uncertainty and turbulence; the luckless Henry Davids fell to the first ball and now sports consecutive knocks of, in descending order, 0, 7, 1 and 7 in his last four appearances.

And for all the sprightliness and urgency to the Du Plessis-Duminy alliance of 112 in 12 overs and one ball, questions were still entitled to be asked about the Proteas’ failure to get David Miller to the crease at all and AB de Villiers only with a miserly three balls left.

That’s a little like pitching up at the boxing bill and seeing the intended main event suddenly canned, isn’t it?

As Dale Benkenstein, the former SA player and long-time Dolphins and Durham legend noted during the break between innings from the SuperSport studio: "If you want to be hyper-critical, maybe we could have gone harder earlier to get to about 180 (instead of the eventual 163 for three)."

In the final analysis, Benkenstein’s apologetic 'hyper-criticism' proved hauntingly spot-on ... even if few would have predicted the freak, Dilshan- and Mahela Jayawardene-inspired tornado that effectively set up the ‘Lankan race to victory as quickly as the first four or five withering overs of the reply.

Considering that they currently show at least one weak link in an opening spot, the Proteas must seriously consider making sure that De Villiers is installed somewhere among the top three, and perhaps as an opener – a move attempted only once-off against the Pakistanis last summer.

As for the SA effort in the field, sometimes you just cannot legislate against a blitz of the kind the ‘Lankans produced right from the start of their innings, and all of Lonwabo Tsotsobe (a nightmarish personal performance in the field generally), Morné Morkel and Wayne Parnell got rare 'tap' on the night.

Nevertheless, if times of adversity for some can occasionally bring out notably good, cool-headed qualities in others, then leg-spinner Imran Tahir and rookie all-rounder David Wiese would have ticked a few boxes for their quests to stem the rampant tide.

A few pleasing answers, still some serious questions; this whole tour should go down as an educative exercise, hopefully with more positive spin-offs in the months ahead.

For the time being, South Africa’s one-day cricket remains in a state of not uninteresting flux ...

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing
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