SA did cry out for Abbott

Kyle Abbott (AP)
Kyle Abbott (AP)

Cape Town – It would be grossly unfair and unreasonable to single out his direct replacement on the day, Vernon Philander, as the central cause of the Proteas’ seventh successive failure to sample a World Cup final.

In fact, put such ignoramuses canvassing the idea back in the hole where they belong.

South Africa didn’t lose an epic, great-advertisement limited-overs contest to New Zealand because of one man: watch the semi-final thriller from scratch and you will be reminded of a vast variety of flashpoints during its see-sawing course that affected the way it finally went with just a ball to spare.

Besides, Philander has been a yeoman element of the broader national cricket cause for several years and has inflicted plenty of particularly telling misery on the Black Caps – albeit more often at Test level – before.

But yes, those lamenting the non-selection of an in-form Kyle Abbott at heaving Eden Park on Tuesday have a pretty powerful point nevertheless.

In an ideal world and given the slightly soggy conditions, this match cried out for the presence of both ace seamers to bolster the SA cause, but we also know that from a balance point of view, assembling the XI is a dreadfully complex matter given the absence of a fully-fledged all-rounder.

No matter how you structure it, the side will look top-heavy one way, whether it is in batting or bowling.

On Tuesday the team’s brains trust, not unsurprisingly or without merit, decided to stick to the method that earned the rip-roaring slaughter of Sri Lanka in the quarters, by empowering JP Duminy as fifth bowler and thus fielding only four specialists in that area.

Proven stalwarts Morne Morkel and Dale Steyn were never going to miss out, despite the fact that the latter has had a sub-standard tournament by his standards and regrettably stayed in that strange vein in Auckland, and nor was the consistently dangerous main spinner Imran Tahir.

So it came down to a straight shootout between Philander and Abbott for the one additional pace vacancy.

Beforehand, it is probably accurate to say most observers, either South African or neutral, believed the Proteas would (and should) not tamper with the gleaming furniture from the ‘Lankan demolition job.

The old but eternally apt cliché of “don’t fiddle with a winning side” would have come quite dazzlingly to mind.

But in their wisdom, the Proteas’ strategists, including whoever made the final call, opted to pull Abbott, fresh from an incisive role at Sydney Cricket Ground less than a week earlier and seemingly growing in both stature and heart, and reinstate Philander, who has had a frustratingly stop-start tournament through injury.

Short of a gallop, his “loosener” over of the New Zealand chase was marked by 14 runs coming from the smoking blade of Brendon McCullum, plus another four given up to byes as his normally metronomic good length deserted him – he kept dropping it inexplicably short – and the Black Caps were off to a collectively spine-stiffening flier.

Again, don’t single out Philander for special crimes up front: strike partner Steyn’s first three overs sailed for a rarely grotesque 39 runs, remember.

But it is still a cold fact that from very early on, certain intended primary Proteas bowlers were “travelling” – though Morkel and Tahir were again splendid -- and that put enormous pressure on the entire, slimly-stocked attack for much of the remainder of the match.

The one thing you can say about Abbott is that due to his superior pace, he will often be less prone than Philander to a walloping over the ropes on a ground with short boundaries if he happens to get his length well off the mark.

Every now and then on the throbbing, often chaotic night, Philander was able to go agonisingly past the outside edge with a peach of a delivery – the kind of fare we can so often take for granted when he is optimally fit.

But it is also clear he is not quite at that desired level, as evidenced by his failure to see out the game on the park (even if perhaps there’ll be some indignant spin from the camp suggesting his shortened presence in the field was unrelated to any existing niggles?).

In an unbearably tense finish, with Johannesburg-born Grant Elliott the unlikely Black Caps man of the hour, Proteas skipper AB de Villiers – who gave everything and more personally, despite moderate illness -- may also have rued not being able to summon the Dolphins favourite Abbott for a dose of death bowling.

While not fully proven yet for his coolness in such circumstances at the highest level, he is probably the nearest thing in the 15-man squad to a willing specialist in that unenviable area of responsibility.

We will never know whether Abbott would have shone in the semi; it is entirely possible he would have had angst-laden moments as much as any colleague with the greasy white ball.

So it would also be presumptuous to submit this was a selection booboo by the Proteas of huge similarity to the controversial 1996 decision not to field Allan Donald on a flat Karachi pitch for the CWC quarter-final against West Indies.

On that occasion, South Africa copped it decisively from Brian Lara, and even White Lightning might not have been spared the left-hander’s wrath.

But all signs before this crunch fixture of 2015 pointed to Abbott being near-undroppable, as he increasingly cemented a slot and oozed ambition.

Instead, South Africa messed with the team-shape mojo.

Right or wrong? We can argue on that score until the cows come home (unless they’re enjoying the grassy meadow too much, of course).

But we will, and we’re allowed to, after a game decided by the margin of a lone hair on someone’s littlest toe ...

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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