JOHANNESBURG – Seven bowling options and batting down to eight – might the Proteas have stumbled onto the right balance for the starting team in limited overs cricket?
Conditions at the Premadasa Stadium in Colombo, aren’t weighted drastically in favour of spinners – it’s not Kanpur in 2008 or Nagpur in 2015 – but it is slow and thus it helps to have as many options as possible.
Keshav Maharaj, standing in for Temba Bavuma in the second ODI against Sri Lanka on Saturday had that, in the shape of three frontline spinners – himself included – and the part-time off-spin of Aiden Markram, which on Saturday he didn’t need.
The Proteas have battled with the balance of the starting team for much of the duration of Mark Boucher’s tenure as coach. There’s an argument that problems with balance stems back to the 2015 World Cup. It’s a question of batting depth, while giving the captain more than just five options to call on with the ball.
The search for the right balance has taken the team and selectors on some interesting journeys, none more so than the fourth T20 International against Pakistan earlier this year, when the starting XI contained just four frontline batsmen, but eight bowling options.
On Saturday, the side had a better balance. Of course, with the bat, much is dependent on the top order, but that is always the case in the sub-continent. South Africa’s two openers, Markram and the prodigious Janneman Malan, have been excellent in the series thus far. They’ve provided a foundation and the middle order, despite getting into a muddle in the opening match, have played off that platform reasonably well.
There were problems with the new ball in the opening game, with neither Kagiso Rabada nor Anrich Nortje, finding the right lengths, but Rabada rectified that on Saturday with a wonderful opening spell, that on the back of Malan’s century, ripped the game away from the Sri Lankans.
Tabraiz Shamsi took a first ODI ‘five-for,’ but he is still not at his best yet, while Maharaj again, showed great control, and George Linde made contributions in all three departments on debut.
Given that the 2023 World Cup is in India, having three frontline spinners does seem like the way to go for the Proteas. It’s a composition the 2011 World Cup side used as well – with Robin Peterson, Johan Botha and Imran Tahir – and there is no shame in copying that strategy now.
Maharaj came through his first match as captain very well. In fact, having that many spinners at his disposal actually suits him for it’s what he is accustomed to as part of the all-spinning Dolphins, who have used that strategy to good effect at Kingsmead in recent years.
“Keshav has proved on the domestic front that he is a good captain,” Malan said on Saturday. “He’s a leader in the group. He has a calm head and he is a very smart cricketer. It's good to have a guy like that leading the team.”
Saturday’s win earned the Proteas 10 points on the ICC World Cup Super League table, moving them up to eighth place. The Super League is being used to determine the automatic qualifiers for the 2023 World Cup. The top seven teams, plus hosts India will qualify for the tournament, while the remaining two spots will be determined by a pre-qualifying competition.
The series decider will be played at the Premadasa on Tuesday.