Proteas: Choppy waters … but why not now?

Kagiso Rabada (Getty Images)
Kagiso Rabada (Getty Images)

Cape Town - Remember all those previous periods between World Cups, when South Africa have looked a seemingly irresistible, machine-like force in one-day international cricket?

History tells us, of course, that it has done them a fat lot of good come the major tournament itself, with the national team yet to even make a final after seven cracks at the event, sometimes quite literally ending in tears for players and supporter alike.

So anyone inclined to be overly scathing of their now confirmed, comprehensive home series loss to India - whether it ends by a 1-5 or 2-4 margin after the dead-rubber closing match at SuperSport Park on Friday - might be better advised to contemplate that if you are going to have a wobble, perhaps some 15 months before CWC 2019 in England isn’t such a bad time for it, really.

It is true that the Proteas pride themselves on a strong winning record in home ODI series: they sported a win percentage of 83.33 from strictly bilateral ones – or 35 triumphs from 42 series ahead of this one.

So any blip is disappointing, and this one has also represented India’s first conquest on South African soil.

Not only that, but in Port Elizabeth on Tuesday, where Virat Kohli’s charges prevailed in game five by 73 runs, they also buried their St George’s Park bogey; it was a venue where they had lost all five prior ODIs (four to SA, one to Kenya).

Especially galling is that all of India’s quartet of victories thus far have been by very decisive margins, so this series may go down statistically, whatever happens in lingering business at Centurion, as the Proteas’ most sobering yet on own terrain.

Events in the Friendly City also brought crashing back to earth with a bump any hopes that the weather-curtailed Wanderers victory on Saturday represented some kind of meaningful turnaround for South Africa.

Just three days on, their rookie-laden outfit got caught in the headlamps once more, undone for the umpteenth time at the crease by the wrist-spinning wizardry of Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal.

Between them, they have caused mayhem across the five matches thus far, Yadav bagging 16 scalps at 11.56 and Chahal 14 at 16.00.

Both are a long way superior to the leading South African wicket-taker, the 21-year-old paceman Lungi Ngidi, who snuck ahead of Kagiso Rabada (five from five matches, at 48.40) with his career-best 4/51 in PE to reach six victims at 25.00.

Despite that lopsided state of affairs in success rates, the Proteas’ bowlers haven’t fared too badly in execution-of-duties terms; they followed up their pleasing late-innings discipline and economy at the Bullring by putting a decent enough lid on the Indian death-phase assault at St George’s Park, too.

Where once the tourists had looked ominously set to post a target well north of 300, it ended up being 275 and the Proteas might have got a lot closer to hunting it down but for the (continued) frailties of their middle- to lower-order batting - an area they definitely need to address with some urgency.

Some form of mitigation was the absence, through a back complaint, of bowling all-rounder Chris Morris, which made the tail look even more brittle on paper than it might have been on the night.

There is nothing special at this advanced stage of the series about the SA batsmen from a numbers point of view: it took Hashim Amla’s stubborn but far from flawless or smooth 71 to nudge him ahead of Faf du Plessis as leading scorer so far: 144 runs at 28.80.

Just in one innings before his unfortunate pull-out through injury, regular captain Du Plessis had scored 120.

But before we get our knickers in too much of a knot in that department, bear in mind that Du Plessis and Quinton de Kock returning to duty shortly should stabilise the frontline batting to a large degree.

In their absence, too, the cupboard of options at the crease has only increased promisingly - at a time when some regeneration is badly needed - with two bright, belligerent innings in three ODIs against the Indians from Heinrich Klaasen.

The 26-year-old wicketkeeper is not quite in De Kock’s league (not right now, anyway) for glovework, but he is competent enough at that job and also well capable both technically and temperamentally, it appears, of earning a ticket anywhere between berths five and seven just for what he offers with the willow.

It is discoveries like this that are priceless 15 months before a World Cup, even as the current dressing room hurts from the burden of thumping bilateral failure …

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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