at the Union Buildings in Pretoria
You can’t bring a knife to a gun fight, and in international cricket, the Twenty20 format is the most brutal of gunfights.
A bowler’s reputation can be ruined in minutes, as batsmen continually find new ways to clear the boundary and gun down any total.
The World Twenty20 in Bangladesh is the Proteas’ latest tilt at ICC silverware.
The defending champions, the maverick West Indies, have a destructive batting card, capable of beating anyone on their day.
The runners-up from 2012, Sri Lanka, have the classiest middle order in the competition, and in Lasith Malinga, one of the few bowlers who can deliver yorkers at will.
The perennial contenders, Australia and India, have powerful batters up front, and varied bowling attacks.
South Africa, Pakistan and England are the dark horses, based on their previous performances at this competition, as well as the make-up of Russell Domingo’s squad.
We look at what South Africa will have to do to have a realistic chance of returning with their first trophy in 16 years.
It is crucial to start any contest well, but a quick start is even more pertinent in the shortest format of the game. With the bat, South Africa are increasingly leaning on the young but enigmatic shoulders of Quinton de Kock.
The young pup prefers to let his batting do the talking, but the opposition have already earmarked him as one to keep an eye on.
“(He is an) extremely talented player, naturally gifted. He looks a real star for the future. Anyone who can hit a cricket ball like that is jam-packed with talent,” Australia’s Brad Hodge said of the Proteas’ opener.
Certainly, De Kock has shown a healthy appetite for the biggest stage. Like many of the cleaner hitters in world cricket, there appears to be very little premeditation in his game. It’s a matter of “see the ball, hit the ball”, and that simplicity has served him well so far.
With the ball, the Proteas will hope that Lonwabo Tsotsobe finds another gear – and swiftly. His medium-pacers were massacred for 21 runs by the relentless David Warner in the first over of Wednesday’s 7-over kiddies’ meal of a match in Durban.
Pressure needs to be created up front, and the best teams are constantly on the lookout for points of weakness in other sides.
Beuran Hendricks was also given a baptism of fire, but he can only benefit from the experience of having taken on an Australian team in full flight.
For years, South Africa has had batsmen and bowlers who are recognised as up there with the best in the world. Their records command respect and their abilities are in no doubt. But this evolving South African side will be a different beast if their two biggest stars take centre stage and shine in this World Twenty20.
“AB de Villiers, to my mind, is the best player in the world across all formats,” Australia’s Shane Watson admitted.
Certainly, De Villiers has every shot in the book – and several others that mortals can only dream about. But, he is yet to stamp his authority on a tournament in a consistent manner that intimidates the opposition.
While young guns such as De Kock and David Miller may be getting a lot of press, they are still finding their feet at the highest level.
De Villiers’ pedigree is undoubted. Without the shackles of keeping or captaincy, this tournament is his opportunity to lead his country to glory.
Dale Steyn, recognised as arguably the finest fast bowler in the game, also has the chance to inspire. There are few better exponents of swing with a new ball in hand. If he can knock off rivals’ dangermen up front, he will go a long way to easing South Africa’s concerns of how to contain teams at the end of the innings.
If Steyn strikes regularly, it will be significantly tougher for teams to build any momentum in the business end of the innings. An injury-free Steyn in full flight remains one of the most intimidating sights in the game.
IN A SPIN
Flick a look across each squad list for the tournament, and every side with serious ambitions has at least one quality spinner to call on. And they are not content to play a containing role.
The likes of Sunil Narine, Saeed Ajmal, Brad Hogg, Ravichandran Ashwin and Ajantha Mendis are all strike bowlers first, who so happen to throttle the scoring rate as a consequence of the knots they get batsmen in.
Imran Tahir will be the Proteas’ trump card.
“Immy will be crucial for me. He’s never going to be a guy who tries to go at five runs an over, and it’s important to accept that. He’s as much of a strike bowler as Dale Steyn, if not more so,” said Faf du Plessis.
And it’s important for Tahir to know that his skipper backs him fully.
Du Plessis, himself a life member of the “Leg-spinners Association”, knows all too well what magic Tahir can create, but he also knows that he will get it wrong from time to time.
Tahir has saved his best Proteas’ form for the sub-continent. His breakthroughs at the 2011 World Cup introduced him to a curious audience, and his five-wicket burst against Pakistan in a Test match in the UAE confirmed his ability to strike at any time, even against players who are comfortable against spin.
How he fares will also be critical to South Africa’s chances. The back-up he receives from JP Duminy will also be handy.
South African teams have carved out a reputation for being regimented in their approach. While that deliberate style of playing has proved successful in Test cricket, the kamikaze nature of T20 cricket demands a loosening of the tie, and an embracing of the unknown.
Wednesday’s severely shortened encounter against Australia at Kingsmead is a case in point. Once they knew they only had seven overs to bat, sending Hashim Amla into a slugging contest was not the wisest decision.
Amla, all class and composure, thrives in finding spaces and hurting bowlers with “proper” cricket shots in a normal Powerplay, so to expect him to be effective in such a frenetic setting was ambitious at best.
Wednesday’s loss is irrelevant when one looks at the bigger picture, but the Proteas missed a trick there as they limped to 11 in the first three overs.
One of their middle-order titans, Morkel or Miller, would likely have asked sterner questions of the Aussie opening bowlers, and given the side a better start.
If they are confronted with a rain-affected match in Bangladesh, it will be interesting to see if the lesson from Durban is heeded.
Ultimately, South Africa’s hopes will be decided by their ability to hold their nerve in the final four overs of each innings. With the ball, it appears that the selectors have already hamstrung Domingo by not providing him with a bona fide “death bowler”.
The country’s two best practitioners of this crucial skill, Kyle Abbott and Rusty Theron, will be watching proceedings from afar, but one of them should have been on the plane to Bangladesh.
Death bowling is as critical as power-hitting up front, and can be the difference between winning and losing tight scraps. Domingo was at pains to point out that Steyn and Morné Morkel can do such a job, but history would argue that their preferred lengths are not ideal for that potentially explosive stage of the match.
Wayne Parnell and Beuran Hendricks have had degrees of success at franchise level, but both have realised that the margins at international cricket are minute.
The Proteas look in better shape to finish off matters with the bat, though.
Power hitters litter the international game. Every team has several players capable of destroying an attack in minutes. The West Indian triumvirate of Marlon Samuels, Dwayne Bravo and Darren Sammy, for example, simply refuse to believe that any target is beyond reach.
The return of Albie Morkel to the Proteas’ set-up is significant, because it emphasises the enduring value of reputation in this format of the game. If and when Morkel fires, somebody will get hurt.
The same applies to the man pencilled in one spot ahead of him in the pecking order: Miller. He has simmered at international level, but he was cooking in the recent Ram Slam Challenge. He and Morkel can clear any boundary, but they have also proved that they are at their brutal best when afforded an over or two to warm up, before thrashing violently.
To get the best out of their “gun batsmen”, the Proteas will have to juggle their order at times to adapt to the demands of specific situations.
16 Bangladesh v Afghanistan, Mirpur 11:30
16 Hong Kong v Nepal, Chittagong 15:30
17 Ireland v Zimbabwe, Sylhet 11:30
17 Netherlands v United Arab Emirates, Sylhet 15:30
18 Afghanistan v Hong Kong, Chittagong 11:30
18 Bangladesh v Nepal, Chittagong 15:30
19 Netherlands v Zimbabwe, Sylhet 11:30
19 Ireland v United Arab Emirates, Sylhet 15:30
20 Afghanistan v Nepal, Chittagong 11:30
20 Bangladesh v Hong Kong, Chittagong 15:30
21 United Arab Emirates v Zimbabwe, Sylhet 07:30
21 Ireland v Netherlands, Sylhet 11:30
21 India v Pakistan, Mirpur 15:30
22 South Africa v Sri Lanka, Chittagong 11:30
22 England v New Zealand, Chittagong 15:30
23 Australia v Pakistan, Mirpur 11:30
23 India v West Indies, Mirpur 15:30
24 New Zealand v South Africa, Chittagong 11:30
24 Sri Lanka v Qualifier B1, Chittagong 15:30
25 West Indies v Qualifier A1, Mirpur 15:30
27 South Africa v Qualifier B1, Chittagong 11:30
27 England v Sri Lanka, Chittagong 15:30
28 Australia v West Indies, Mirpur 11:30
28 India v Qualifier A1, Mirpur 15:30
29 New Zealand v Qualifier B1, Chittagong 11:30
29 England v South Africa, Chittagong 15:30
30 Pakistan v Qualifier A1, Mirpur 11:30
30 Australia v India, Mirpur 15:30
31 England v Qualifier B1, Chittagong 11:30
31 New Zealand v Sri Lanka, Chittagong 15:30
1 Australia v Qualifier A1, Mirpur 11:30
1 Pakistan v West Indies, Mirpur 15:30
3 TBA (Semi-final 1) v TBA, Mirpur 15:00
4 TBA (Semi-final 2) v TBA, Mirpur 15:00
6 TBA (Final) v TBA, Mirpur 15:00 - Sunday Independent