SA get their mongrel back

Faf du Plessis and Morné Morkel (AFP)
Faf du Plessis and Morné Morkel (AFP)
Cape Town – Successfully defending the seemingly indefensible ... was that just the spark the Proteas needed to salvage pride from their hitherto sickly tour of Sri Lanka?

Certainly South Africa’s limited-overs cricketers will return to our shores immeasurably less shame-faced than had seemed likely if they can earn consolation triumph in the Twenty20 international mini-series.

Unexpectedly -- but supremely courageously -- 1-0 up after Friday’s first of three contests against the No 1-ranked outfit in the format, just one further victory from two clashes scheduled for Hambantota on Sunday (again 15:30) and Tuesday, would be a shot in the arm for the country after the 4-1 ODI capitulation.

Keep in mind that however limited the gravitas of bilateral T20 series, the ICC World Twenty20, in not dissimilar conditions in Bangladesh, is next on the list of significant global get-togethers (in 2014).

So if sixth-ranked South Africa can snatch this particular series against the home juggernaut, it will be a serious fillip to their quest for that elusive limited-overs tournament silverware.

The Proteas’ 115 for six had seemed insufficient – almost grossly so – after another upper-order collapse, an affliction that has stuck around as though untreatable for them in ‘Lanka thus far.

It took some dogged counter-punching from JP Duminy, a commendably all-action figure on the night as a whole, and David Miller to provide some sense of fresh impetus, even though the dice still looked loaded in Sri Lankan favour during the break between innings.

But with Faf du Plessis presumably feeling pretty grim as a regressing batsman at present, yet leading splendidly in the field, South Africa got themselves determinedly under ‘Lankan skins straight away and stuck there as they pulled off a near-famous win.

The bowling was collectively urgent and much more disciplined than had been the case for much of the ODI series humbling, and Duminy put the cherry on top of a personally productive appearance (his 43rd for SA in this environment) by not only going past 1 000 runs via his crisp half-century but earning his best off-spin figures of three for 18.

Just as significantly, this was the first occasion in which he has completed a full four-over stint for the national cause, and it comes on top of a few games, even during the recent ODI woes in the same land, when he has either bowled or come close to completing 10-over personal spells in the slightly more expanded limited-overs format.

Clearly confidence in his ability to aid the bowling cause quite fulsomely is only growing, which is a wonderful development when you consider that a certain Jacques Kallis – another key batsman who also bowls smartly – is in his twilight.

Duminy very nearly earned even more comprehensive 'Superman' status in Friday’s low-scoring nail-biter because in a fielding capacity, he came within a whisker of pulling off a miracle catch from a full-blooded Kumar Sangakkara drive when the left-handed maestro only had 12 of his eventual tally of 59 not out – almost two thirds of Sri Lanka’s total runs off the blade in a strangely hapless performance at the crease.

Duminy earned rightful praise from former national captain and now SuperSport critic Shaun Pollock, who pointed out that in the innings break a grimly-optimistic Duminy had said in a pitch-side interview that the Proteas “will simply have to make our total enough”.

Pollock noted afterwards, in admiration for words being converted into action: “JP was then part and parcel of actually pulling it off.”

We cannot pretend that this South African team has become a well-oiled machine with the snap of some fingers: much angst still surrounds the lack of form of several batsmen, and also the very composition of the order.

Another former SA skipper, Kepler Wessels, made a valid point when he said the Proteas cannot afford to be 'scared' of exposing their best and most dangerous stroke-players too early in the innings – especially when the exisiting top-order men are only putting severe pressure on them anyway by being knocked over cheaply.

It really does seem to make sense for the brains trust to throw caution to the wind to some degree and install the likes of AB de Villiers, Duminy and Miller much nearer the start of the innings and the harder ball, in order to secure an overdue initial stranglehold and rattle the wily, multi-skilled ‘Lankan attack.

Full credit to South Africa for defending 115 ... but they won’t be able to do that every day, will they?

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing
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