Killer touch still eludes SA

Sport24 columnist Rob Houwing (File)
Sport24 columnist Rob Houwing (File)
Rob Houwing

How important, especially in this age of desperately cluttered itineraries, are dead rubber fixtures anyway?

It is a point worth pondering, not least because South Africa became more and more obviously “experimental” as they tackled the back end of the five-match one-day international series against a Sri Lankan side generally more resilient than had been anticipated on their tour of this country recently.

The records will show that the Proteas won the Test series 2-1 when a clean sweep was arguably the likeliest outcome beforehand - the Lankans never previously having won a Test here - and edged the ODI series 3-2 after being in with a shout at a much more emphatic outcome when they stormed into a 3-0 lead at Bloemfontein.

For what it’s worth, I would have been inclined to significantly trumpet their achievement had they won the ODIs 4-1 or 5-0 against the 2011 World Cup finalists; instead they settled for a rather more “par” outcome, the kind you would expect in a match-up of a home team going into a series one rung ahead of their opponents on the ICC rankings, as was the case.

After inching upward, the Proteas slipped back slightly to third, narrowly behind now second-placed India, following defeat in each of the last two fixtures at Kimberley and Johannesburg respectively.

So we were left with a bit of a ho-hum, business-as-usual sort of feeling in the wake of the series: a continued belief that AB de Villiers and company can beat anybody on a good day but still aren’t quite ready to actually dominate the world in the ODI format.

Certainly it would have been a lot more palatable for South African enthusiasts had they triumphed at least once after closing the series “deal” early, and by doing so confirming a greater willingness and ability to keep their foot on the throat of their prey rather than place it there and then all too quickly back off – a phenomenon that arguably still plagues the Test team, too.

Nevertheless, Gary Kirsten and his various lieutenants are bound to have learnt a great deal more about the troops at their disposal after the coach’s first home summer in charge of national fortunes.

The startling amount of chopping and changing tactically during the series - plus praiseworthy enough decision to give meaningful feet-up time to the likes of Jacques Kallis, Hashim Amla and Dale Steyn - was hopefully little more than a deliberate step toward establishing which players exactly “cut it” as potential regulars henceforth.

I believe I am not alone in hoping we may see rather more of a “regular first team” fielded now on the next assignment, away to New Zealand, where the Proteas will play Tests and Twenty20 internationals as well.

As if we needed it, we received confirmation, I think, of the massive value to the cause of the big three names just mentioned, as they sat out the successive, slightly dampening reverses when the Lankans delightedly chased down 300-plus each time.

A glance at the ODI series averages will tell you that the jury remains out, to varying degrees, on the long-term batting prospects of such relative newcomers as Faf du Plessis and Colin Ingram.

The latter started his career with a bang, earning centuries in two of his first four innings, but sports a highest score of 46 in nine since then, including 13 and one in his two opportunities against Sri Lanka.

Du Plessis has looked a serious livewire and strong run-out factor in the field, but it is his knocks that he will be more critically evaluated on: apart from his classy 72 at Bloemfontein (thank goodness, in hindsight, for the extent of his contribution to the Duckworth/Lewis narrow victory there!) he did not fully grasp his five chances at the crease as he averaged 25.80 in the series.

The Proteas’ batting averages from the contests have a decidedly “old firm” look about them, headed up as they were by the quite splendid De Villiers - we got reassuring confirmation that the captaincy will perhaps only take his contribution with the blade to stunning new levels - and with the next successful surnames, in descending order, being Amla, Kallis, Smith and Duminy.

From a bowling point of view, South Africa started the series like a house on fire, revelling in the unexpected degree of bounce and even some seam movement at Paarl where the tourists were humbled for 43 all out in 20.1 overs.

But when the going got flatter - and of course that will mostly be the case in ODI series or tournaments - they found things more challenging and perhaps only the blossoming Lonwabo Tsotsobe could look on the entire series with a warranted level of satisfaction.

The quest to pinpoint a willing and able death bowler goes on: in these post-Hall and Langeveldt times nobody has yet looked the unflappable part in that particular area where real “bottle” is required.

Although he certainly doesn’t get it right every time in the equivalent slot in the Twenty20 arena for the Proteas, maybe 26-year-old Rusty Theron is worth another crack in the ODI fold and given a guaranteed ticket of several matches plus a licence for some pain as he learns more and more about the taxing art?

Similarly somebody like Albie Morkel continues to rather “flat line” for his country: a very important finishing element as a batsman at No 7, I feel, but still labouring for wickets and notable economy with ball in hand.

So yes, some unresolved matters around the South African ODI brew remain, even as some encouraging elements of innovation and daring characterised De Villiers’s earliest days at the on-field helm.

One healthy step forward and then ... oops.

Will this stubbornly lingering phenomenon finally be put to pasture in New Zealand?

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

Rob Houwing is Sport24's chief writer

Sport24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on Sport24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Sport24.
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