Proteas in batting crisis

Russell Domingo, Alan Donald and Hashim Amla (Gallo Images)
Russell Domingo, Alan Donald and Hashim Amla (Gallo Images)
Cape Town – Are we simply seeing necessary growth pains, or rather more ominous pre-death wriggles?

That remains a pertinent question after South Africa slumped to a second successive defeat in their five-match one-day international tour of Sri Lanka on Tuesday.

The Proteas were considerably better from a competitive point of view in rain-curtailed game two at the R Premadasa Stadium ... that is at least something to pluck from the rubble of a third ODI loss on the trot (it is also five matches since they last sampled victory) for AB de Villiers’s under-the-cosh outfit.

Yet they also still weren’t good enough, as another anaemic, alarmingly brittle batting display was primarily responsible for the slide to a 0-2 situation against the Lankans in a Duckworth/Lewis-necessitated finish.

De Villiers stated the obvious afterwards in saying that "three massive matches" lay ahead, while from the SuperSport studios in Johannesburg, retired wicketkeeper Mark Boucher spoke of "three finals" looming.

Frankly, a likelier scenario than the tourists turning this series dramatically on its head at this stage is a repeat of the 5-0 whitewash the country suffered in the 2004 tour of Sri Lanka, which is only becoming more and more of a hoodoo place for South Africa to do battle in.

That may not happen, of course, because if the Proteas showed one thing in the second ODI, it was much more of a grim determination not to disgrace than had been the case in the 180-run slaughter first up.

Perhaps they were quietly – or even not so quietly – hurting about remarks made by Craig Matthews, the accurate SA seamer of the immediate post-isolation era, after that humiliation, when he suggested that a certain 'softness' was evident in the team’s performance.

Former national selector Matthews was quite entitled, and also suitably qualified, to make that charge at the time.

And there’s every chance that even he would have saluted an altogether steelier approach to the follow-up clash, surrendered only by 17 runs under the abbreviated method and with David Miller tantalisingly set for a possible 'tee off' of the kind of game-turning boundary-hitting to which he is so much more accustomed and revered a tier or so down from international level.

I am not going to suggest the left-handed Miller – who like several current team-mates is yet to take the ODI arena truly by storm – would, indeed, have won the match against the odds, but there was at least a fair prospect.

That said, it is a little disturbing, and indicative of the emotional fragility and various shortcomings of the team, that an iron will not to surrender could not be matched by achievement of the desired result.

In short, the Proteas were streets better this time with the ball and as a fielding unit ... but once again the intended cream of their batting glaringly didn’t rise to the top.

Their ODI side looks a little like the current Australian Test team, alas, for rank instability and doubt in several key batting slots, although the situation is cruelly aggravated by the injury jinx known class act Hashim Amla is experiencing on this safari.

Poor Amla must have been tempted to try to sleep on his feet for elusive comfort’s sake on Tuesday night, given that he entered the game still with some concerns about a stiff neck, and then apparently suffered at least minor damage to both a groin muscle and knee in an awkward outfield fall on the slippery surface which required him to be carried off.

De Villiers said the established opener was due, pluckily, to be next man in if the chase had been able to resume after yet another – and ultimately decisive – rain interruption, but in some ways that drastic action would only have highlighted how the remainder of the top- and middle-order batting under-delivered for at least the third ODI in a row.

Nor is there any immediate light at the end of that particular tunnel, because in reserve for the South Africans with the blade on the tour are only further, largely internationally-unproven individuals in Quinton de Kock and Farhaan Behardien.

Still, coach Russell Domingo and company could do worse, in fairness, than give them a crack in the unappetising event that the third match, in Pallekele on Friday, sees the Lankans complete an early series triumph and certain incumbents – Faf du Plessis is skating on some thin ice now – flop anew.

"I’m very disappointed in our batting; let’s not blame the rain," Boucher sensibly suggested after the latest reverse.

"You can’t doubt the commitment, but our top order is not in form and needs sorting out. Someone needs to go out and fight and turn this whole tour around."

If that incredible turnaround is to occur, South Africa will have to pull off something they last achieved in 2011/12, winning three ODIs on the trot to clean-sweep New Zealand impressively 3-0 away.
Tellingly, they had significantly more 'hardebaarde' at their disposal then.

The extent of the Proteas’ problems, in an overall context, is such that even in their greatly more competent, cohesive bowling showing on Tuesday (with Morné Morkel again to the fore) a few worrying chinks still came to light – they produced a carbon copy of the first match, for instance, in leaking a criminal 14 wides.

That is almost two and a half extra overs charitably presented to the gleeful Lankans each time, and in the latest game it may well have been a critical, really infuriating factor in playing second fiddle, when you think about it ...

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing
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