Cape Town – Spinners with devious variations … they continue to look the most glaring, purely cricket-related threat to South Africa’s quest to win that elusive World Cup in 2019.
Proteas enthusiasts are acutely aware of the broader psychological baggage that stalks the national side at the biggest global tournament, for a variety of reasons.
But as if that isn’t bad enough, their particularly painful frailty at present against attacking slow bowlers who are difficult to pick and can turn the ball meaningfully both ways – or sometimes slide it straight through just as cunningly – stands out as a clear obstacle of its own to their eighth crack at the CWC title in England next year.
Early summer in the UK isn’t always the most natural climate for spinners to prosper, but the best ones also tend to be formidable factors in limited-overs cricket regardless of specific location or time of year.
The Proteas will also go into the World Cup knowing that two of their last three opponents in the pre-semis stage are Subcontinental ones – with all the associated, especially pronounced varietals they tend to provide in their attacks – in the shape of Pakistan and current tour foes Sri Lanka.
On Sunday, the Proteas went through the trauma of another lopsided skirmish with the “unorthodoxy” trade as Akila (certainly a fitting first name, on the day) Dananjaya, the 24-year-old smiling assassin, wreaked havoc with their stiff chase of 300 to win the fifth one-day international in Colombo.
With Dananjaya’s wiles brilliantly to the fore – he opened the bowling with seamer Suranga Lakmal and duly ripped out four of the tourists’ top five – Sri Lanka romped to a handsome 178-run triumph.
Almost deceptively branded an off-spinner, which somehow seems a cruel pigeon-holing, Dananjaya went on to record career-best figures of six for 29 in his 24th ODI, eclipsing his previous top landmark of six for 54 against India at Pallekele last year.
He finished the series with 14 scalps (at an average of almost 18), four more than the next highest wicket-taker, South African paceman Lungi Ngidi with 10.
It is true that the Proteas had accomplished the main objective in the first three fixtures, clinching all of them convincingly to render the last two dead-rubber affairs, which is when motivation levels and other factors at the tail-end of a tour, consciously or not, can change substantially.
But some of the glow was certainly also removed from their achievement as ‘Lanka bounced back spiritedly in the last few days to narrow the gap to a final 3-2.
The Proteas suffered the ignominy of being bowled out for a paltry 121 – just as damningly, two balls shy of even reaching the intended midway mark in their 50 overs – and having to rely on a gutsy half-century from acting captain Quinton de Kock for almost half of their runs.
Yes, the last two ODIs were characterised by the absence of regular skipper and stalwart batting figure Faf du Plessis, but many of the stroke-players they fielded are also among those bidding to be on the plane to the World Cup.
And while some necessary, almost intentional pain is being suffered at present while they start getting ducks in a row in personnel terms for that event in less than 10 months’ time, there is a worrying hallmark over their last two bilateral series, at least, of an “all fall down” habit when confronted by spinners with true X-factor.
That was undoubtedly the case when the Proteas suffered probably their worst home-series humiliation toward the end of the 2017/18 summer, when India befuddled their hosts into a 5-1 submission, based largely on the exploits of multi-pronged spin sorcerers Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal.
They snapped up a near-ridiculous 33 wickets between them in that series – not something spinners achieve too often in South Africa – and frequently did what Dananjaya did on Sunday: emphatically snap the spine of the Proteas’ batting with damaging volleys of wickets in the space of a few deliveries or modest handful of overs.
It suggests a combination of both technical and mental shortcomings against the craft that is just too widespread among SA batsmen, especially those of notably less international experience than, say, Du Plessis, Hashim Amla and JP Duminy.
The last-named player was among the few meriting exemption from major scrutiny after the latest series, only being pipped to the mantle of leading runs-scorer (though he still rightly got player of the series) on the last day as Angelo Mathews’ run-a-ball 97 saw him get to 235 from five knocks – Duminy ended on 227 from as many turns at the crease.
South Africa should not have such significant angst against slow fare over the course of either of their next two ODI series (Zimbabwe at home, Australia away); those may be opportunities for certain batsmen to start feeling better about themselves again in productivity terms.
But then the challenge of “mystery spin” is likely to surface anew when Pakistan visit our shores, and a return visit by Sri Lanka is also scheduled for late summer …
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