JOHANNESBURG – South Africa’s men’s team remains alarmingly inconsistent regardless of the format and it must be a concern heading into a summer that features a series against the planet’s best Test team and before then a T20 World Cup.
The Proteas lost a One-Day International series against Sri Lanka, which they started by bowling poorly, then wrenched back the initiative from the hosts in the run-chase, had their momentum halted by misfortune to the captain, then folded in the middle order and ended up losing. In the second match they grabbed control with the bat, reinforced it with the ball and won comfortably. In the third match, the spinners bowled well - under good leadership from the stand-in skipper Keshav Maharaj - and then the Proteas fell apart with the bat.
Even Mark Boucher seemed at a loss to explain it on Tuesday night, describing the top order implosion as “quite frustrating,” given how well those players had performed in the first two matches.
The Proteas suffer these violent swings in form too often. Batting collapses are almost the norm, the fielding has shown improvement since the West Indies, but remains prone to mishap - as the tour to Ireland showed - and while parts of the bowling work well one day, on others some different parts don’t.
There was some good to come out of the series as both Maharaj and Boucher mentioned on Tuesday. The top order, functioning well in two out of three matches, gets a tick, but all their hard work was undone, when in the most important game of the series they folded so catastrophically.
Janneman Malan, Aiden Markram, Temba Bavuma, Reeza Hendricks and the man who missed the series, Quinton de Kock, provide a lot of options for the selectors for the top three batting positions. If Malan keeps ticking along in the manner he has started his international career, then it becomes hard to leave him out of the side. Markram played very well in the first match and his bowling, albeit part-time, is extremely useful in the sub-continent - where the next World Cup will be played.
With De Kock’s place secure in the opening berth and Bavuma as captain, having to slot in at no.3, Markram may have to grow accustomed to life in the middle order. South Africa has a hole to fill in the order between Rassie van der Dussen, and when he returns David Miller. Heinrich Klaasen, played competently but didn’t land a knockout blow as far cementing future selection is concerned.
Perhaps the most worrying aspect of the limited overs teams is who to pick in the seam bowling all-rounder department. There are currently three candidates; Andile Phehlukwayo, Wiaan Mulder and Dwaine Pretorius. That latter played no part in the series, while Phehlukwayo played in all three matches but was largely anonymous, scoring 26 runs in three innings, while with the ball he failed to take a wicket, bowled only 11 overs and conceded 75 runs.
All the talk about the team’s balance is centered around an all-rounder who can be relied upon to make an impact with both bat and ball, and Phehlukwayo since the 2019 World Cup has not done that - averaging 13.40 with the bat and 41 with the ball in 15 matches.
It means the strategy of having three frontline spinners - as was the case in the last two matches in Sri Lanka - is alway fraught with jeopardy because the starting team, looks a batsman short. The selectors hedged their bets picking both Mulder and Phehlukwayo in the last match, thus having three seamers, along with Kagiso Rabada, but from a batting perspective, it left the Proteas light.
Rabada by his standards was poor in the first and third match of the series, struggling with his rhythm, which meant his line and length often went awry.
The spinning options worked. Maharaj was superb throughout the series, and seemed to enjoy captaining when Bavuma was forced to abandon the tour with that fractured thumb. Utilising four spinners in the final match, showed good awareness on Maharaj’s part and it would have provided much valuable data for the Proteas as they put in place the pieces for the strategies they hope to utilise in 2023.
Overall, the team’s form however is too inconsistent. The Proteas are like that golfer that shoots three good rounds in the 60s, but then that one round in the 80s knocks him out of contention. And that is not going to allow South Africa to challenge better and at the moment even average teams.