Cape Town – Both South Africa and Australia should take heart from the fact that their competitive KFC Twenty20 international mini-series will be decided in Wednesday’s final encounter.
The Proteas came within a whisker of rendering the third clash at PPC Newlands a dead-rubber affair, but with bigger-picture needs in mind it is probably perfect for both nations that the score-line stands 1-1 after Australia’s gutsy last-ball victory in a high-scoring Wanderers heart-stopper on Sunday.
A “final” between the two age-old rivals, with all the educative mental examinations it will offer, seems ideal considering the imminent staging of the ICC World Twenty20 in India – it is unlikely that either country will now enter it soft or complacent in any pronounced way.
Being squeezed out in the Bullring cliff-hanger, with both sides getting beyond the 200-mark at the crease, snapped a five-game winning streak by Faf du Plessis’s troops and served up a reminder that perfection is an elusive beast in the volatile format and fresh little spells of fine-tuning and introspection are inevitable and often productive.
After all, South Africa have often enough in the past entered major ICC limited-overs tournaments as a riotously in-form “machine” and highly touted, only for that burden to prove too much when it mattered the most.
Just imagine if they had clean-swept the Aussies in the current series, and thus gone to the Subcontinent bash boasting a seriously impressive sequence of seven wins on the trot – they would hardly have been able to sneak in beneath the radar, something they have tended to prefer in global events in recent years.
Whether they win or lose the Australian bilateral series from here, Sunday threw up several issues that will require some degree of soul-searching by the SA brains trust – including in the key area of selection of the best possible XI from their squad.
The fickle nature of T20 cricket was highlighted anew in the case of all-rounder David Wiese who, only on Friday in Durban, had registered his own best analysis for a completed bowling spell in internationals – 4-0-16-2 on a pretty slow, more gripping Kingsmead surface that firmly suited his broad array of styles and strategies.
But we veered from chalk to cheese, if you like, at the Wanderers less than two days later, where the strip was truer, harder and with better “come-on” to the willow and left his medium-pacers rather more vulnerable to targeted attack.
Poor Wiese suddenly found himself on the receiving end, by contrast, of his worst four-over concession from 16 appearances for the Proteas: a costly 58 runs, which also left him the 11th most expensive bowler in history from a full complement of overs.
Perhaps it was a reminder – and I am not automatically stating Wiese should not have played -- that a match-day side should never be cast in stone and that it can be valuable to examine specific conditions (even in India, pitches can vary to a surprising extent) from game to game before making the team make-up call.
You do get the feeling from media sound-bites recently that Du Plessis and company feel they “know the best XI” ... but do they really? Shouldn’t there be a wee bit more allowance for flexibility and a horses-for-courses approach?
I believe I am not alone, for example, in feeling more than a little baffled that the Proteas seem to think it is unnecessary or inappropriate to field all of Hashim Amla (rested for each of the first two clashes with the Aussies), AB de Villiers, Quinton de Kock and captain Du Plessis among their top four, and instead narrow the choice to three of them.
All of the quartet have richly proven credentials to justify inclusion, regardless of the specific order in which they may take guard, and the possibility of not playing Amla regularly -- or at all -- in Indian conditions just seems a bit too much like getting to the cycle tour start line without a bike.
As it turned out on Sunday, South Africa quirkily (some might choose a different word) went in with both of their batting-leaning “partial all-rounders” in JP Duminy and Farhaan Behardien – neither in good form or oozing with confidence, and with all too obvious, deep reservations about their deployment as bowlers right now.
On a day when Wiese certainly wasn’t the only Proteas bowler to be ingloriously on the receiving end of the record Australian alliance for any wicket of 161 by David Warner and Glenn Maxwell, the skipper still not having the willingness to engage either for an over or two spoke volumes. Didn’t it?
Still, it isn’t as though the Proteas have suddenly unravelled in a big way – far from it.
Just some of the positive developments to bank in a desperately narrow setback were the continued bright form with the blade of Du Plessis (he eclipsed both Warner and Maxwell for strike rate in his innings of 79), the very credible comeback effort after a long absence of Dale Steyn, and Kagiso Rabada’s massively swelling reputation as a cool, skilful and timber-rattling customer even under immense pressure.
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