Proteas: Search for their ‘seven’ intensifies

Andile Phehlukwayo (Gallo Images)
Andile Phehlukwayo (Gallo Images)

Cape Town – The bowling aspect of the job? Well, that’s just a little less critical because his 10 overs may well be split at times with someone from higher up the order.

But the Proteas will spend the next couple of weeks (in Australia, first ODI in Perth on November 4) and then the remaining months to World Cup 2019 in May importantly gauging whether they have an all-rounder truly capable of being both a productive and suitably resilient batsman from the thorny No 7 position in one-day internationals.

Why is that quality so massively important?

Well, let’s face it, the frontline batting arsenal hasn’t been too commanding as a collective in recent times … hardly helped by the continued, discernible dimming of veteran Hashim Amla’s powers and retirement of master-blaster AB de Villiers.

It now emerges also - as an aggravating factor, some observers will insist with some reason – that South Africa ideally wish to be able to field their best four bowlers in ODIs (clearly including at CWC 2019 in the UK), regardless of competence with the blade.

The “ouch” to that is the cold fact that the premier current candidates to make up that quartet (Kagiso Rabada, Dale Steyn, Lungi Ngidi and Imran Tahir) cannot be considered influential factors at the crease most of the time … so a lengthy tail, with all the associated perils attached, seems reasonably inevitable for the foreseeable future.

Or put it this way, perhaps: whichever of the four admittedly lethal bowlers operates at tail-gateway No 8 (Steyn the favourite?) almost certainly wouldn’t sniff a batting berth higher than ten in the present team of ICC ODI top-ranked England, the World Cup hosts.

It just so happens that one of England’s best strengths is the depth of their batting - many of their bowlers are either technically accomplished in that area or spirited strikers of a ball at worst - which substantially eases the pressure on the more frontline figures in the order.

That country slipping to 30 for two or 70 for three pretty early in an ODI innings, for instance, is generally going to be a bit less traumatic for them than the Proteas doing so in a pivotal fixture; good opponents will know that they are close to exposing a softish underbelly in the latter instance.

Several other ambitious nations at the World Cup, where belters for stroke-play are not assured given the relatively early-season scheduling in England, are likely to field slightly deeper batting line-ups than South Africa will, so there is going to be a near-constant gamble in team composition by coach Ottis Gibson and company - the hope will be for the bowling specialists to play out of their skins in their core areas.

But that really only piles on the pressure for the Proteas, with the clock already ticking down speedily toward CWC, to make sure they pick as shrewdly as possible in the No 7 berth: it will simply have to be somebody who falls well outside any suggestion he is simply another potential “bunny” with the bat.

He will need to be an agreeably penetrative fifth bowler with controlling qualities into the package, as well, although provided that veteran middle-order batsman JP Duminy – as expected – recovers from his untimely shoulder injury well in time for the World Cup, his off-spinners should help fill up that 10-over allotment.

A little scarily, the jury is still out regarding the specific occupant of No 7 as the time for sticking up a hand, as they say, wears ever thinner.

It is as least partly because there is little proven statistical ammunition to be able to point to one obvious solutional figure.

If it’s accepted that the main contenders for that vexing role are going to be, in no special order, Chris Morris, Andile Phehlukwayo, Dwaine Pretorius, Wiaan Mulder and current outsider (or so it strangely seems) Vernon Philander, none of their batting numbers in limited-overs cricket scream about their suitability, frankly, to bat so relatively high up as seven in international combat.

There is a case for protesting that the youth of Phehlukwayo (22) and especially Mulder (20) makes it fairly inevitable that they won’t have too much “wow” element to show yet at the crease in the 50-overs format.

The former has 296 ODI runs at 26.90, though slightly inflated through volume of not-outs, with a personal best so far of 42 not out, and 696 runs in domestic List A cricket (average 20.47).

Presently - and inconveniently - injured, Mulder has had precious few opportunities at the ODI crease, sporting 57 runs at 14.25 and a top score of 19 not out: for all his potential, that is no pointer yet to likely international mastery in the lower middle-order, is it? (His own List A average is 22.33 as things stand.)

Morris at least has infinitely greater experience on his side, and we do know that on a good day he can strike the ball extremely cleanly and have spectators scattering.

Yet even between him and the similarly quite street-wise, 29-year-old Pretorius - both get to strut their stuff Down Under shortly - you are still only boasting a solitary domestic career one-day century thus far: Pretorius’s personal best of 115, whereas Morris’s most productive innings is a 90 not out.

In their favour is that both Pretorius (94) and Morris (115) can claim satisfying strike rates in the franchise 50-overs stuff.    

A personal forecast? Although any good, consistent harvests of runs from a No 7 will earn particularly gleeful ticks of approval in the coming months, the Proteas aren’t going to comprehensively solve that berth’s batting conundrum any time soon, and only continue to be bedevilled by lower-order frailty - and perhaps more universally, too - with the bat.

Which will then forcibly bring back into their thinking, whether reluctantly or not, the argument about whether they’ll more realistically need to shore up both the No 7 and No 8 batting berths by fielding two all-rounders.

Simultaneously that shrinks their specialist, outright bowling strike power by one player, to only three.

Ooh, that troublesome old jigsaw …

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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