Proteas: Clean-sweep horror?

AB de Villiers (AFP)
AB de Villiers (AFP)

Cape Town - Some would say ignominy has been reached for South Africa anyway with Pakistan’s upset but deserved one-day international series win ... but the situation will look even more embarrassing if the Proteas also surrender the dead-rubber third and final match at Centurion on Saturday.

A few days ago it would have seemed inconceivable for AB de Villiers’s team to so soon be in a position where they might be clean-swept 3-0 by these foes, considering the powerful 4-1 earlier triumph over the Pakistanis in the United Arab Emirates.

Misbah-ul-Haq and company -- bringing a necessarily experimental squad for the hastily-convened return series, into the bargain – were intended, at least in the eyes of many local observers, as mere cannon fodder for the Proteas to tune up for India’s controversial tour here, hot on their heels.

Instead they have turned famous party-poopers, earning an unassailable 2-0 lead in a dramatic, high-quality and slightly rain-curtailed fixture at St George’s Park on Wednesday, where they won by one run from a position in which a levelling SA triumph had seemed near certain at an advanced stage.

It was the second time in two seasons that the Proteas have lost a home ODI series to less fancied opponents, as New Zealand won 2-1 last summer.

While no doubt shell-shocked by Pakistan’s commendable claw-back in PE, South Africa must regroup fast to stave off a maiden home whitewash: it is something that has not happened to them in 33 bilateral series on our soil since 1992/93.

The closest they came to that unwanted record was arguably in 2001/02 when an Australian team in their heyday won 5-1 here.

A 3-0 series win by Pakistan would not only dramatically level the ODI scoreboard 4-4 with the Proteas this season, but amply demonstrate just how erratic and unsure of themselves the current group of SA limited-overs players largely are.

So there is still plenty to play for by the home side at SuperSport Park, despite the series spoils being out of reach.

For their part, the cock-a-hoop Pakistanis, who have done anything but play dead on this visit, will believe the sweep is achievable: they were victorious twice in limited-overs clashes at Centurion last season, by six wickets in the second of five ODIs (the Proteas eventually won 3-2) and by 95 runs in the lone Twenty20 international of that tour as one in Durban was washed out.

But South Africa need to restore a semblance of honour swiftly, for the additional reason that there is only a five-day turnaround to the first ODI against World Cup champions India just up the road at the Wanderers.

The latest setback, in the Friendly City, showed all that is good and bad about the puzzling Proteas, who are still falling so lamentably short of matching their consistency and vibrancy in the Test version of the game.

They blew hot and cold in the field, where Dale Steyn stood out as lone bastion of bowling excellence with a new career-best haul of 6/39 – he has now grabbed a sizzling 14 wickets in his last three ODIs.

That said, did South Africa err by only giving the “Steyn Remover” two spells, at beginning and then end? Pakistan were 22/2 when he first left the attack, but by the time he returned for a longish finishing burst they had merrily added all of 158 runs for the loss of three further wickets.

Take nothing away from his brilliance, but one or two of the scalps in his second stint, as Pakistani tail-enders swished at just about anything for top-up purposes to the total, had a hint of an “after the Lord Mayor’s Show” feeling: much damage had been done as they ended with a formidable 262 all out.

The target was a particularly tough ask for a team struggling as chasers, but when trusty accumulator Hashim Amla and a hugely expressive, enterprising De Villiers posted 110 runs for the fourth wicket in 13 overs, the Proteas had grabbed a stranglehold ... or so it seemed.

While it would be unreasonable to criticise the skipper too heavily for a marvellous knock of 74 off 45 deliveries – he seemed to be seeing the ball like a balloon virtually from the outset – he got fatally carried away in his gung-ho improvisation and constant big hitting at a time when braking a bit for more orthodox, sensible cricket would probably have netted him both a century and, more importantly, a win for his side.

He admirably confessed to his folly afterwards: “We had the game in the pocket and then I got out ... so lesson learnt for me. There’s an old rule: don’t give them a sniff.”

That “sniff” turned into a very tasty feast for the Pakistanis, indeed.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing
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