JOHANNESBURG – “We are going to pick people that are going to help us win the World Cup.
“And if we feel we need more all-rounders then, if they are performing well and we know they will perform in those (English) conditions, then the team might well be filled with all-rounders.” – Proteas coach Ottis Gibson, October 30, 2017.
For most of the last 12 months, Gibson, Faf du Plessis and the selectors have pushed the all-rounder strategy.
The England team, with which Gibson had worked prior to taking up the gig with the Proteas, had successfully implemented that structure.
From Ben Stokes to Chris Woakes, Tom Curran and Moeen Ali, England have stacked their One-Day team with players who can fulfil dual roles, something that stretches to Jonny Bairstow and Jos Buttler, who can both keep wicket and bat.
South Africa probably don’t have the depth of quality in the all-rounder department that England have.
Still, Gibson has given all of those who fit the category a run in the last year.
The idea was that the Proteas would most likely field two seam-bowling all-rounders in the starting team, with a third included in the 15-man squad.
That idea has now seemingly been shelved, and the main reason for it isn’t so much that the all-rounders aren’t good enough, just that South Africa want to pick all of Dale Steyn, Lungi Ngidi, Kagiso Rabada and Imran Tahir in the starting XI.
If any team had that quartet at their disposal, why wouldn’t you use them?
Well, for one, it lengthens the tail. That would be okay if the top-order batting was firing consistently, but it hasn’t been since Gibson took over.
There are a number of reasons for that, chief among those being the extended period of experimentation that was undertaken following Gibson’s appointment, and then the retirement of AB de Villiers in May.
The Proteas were never going to fill the hole De Villiers left – no team could – but the players that have been given the chance to play there haven’t performed with the necessary authority to engender confidence.
However, the South Africans are at a point in terms of their build-up to the World Cup where they have to play the cards they’ve been dealt.
In that regard, they have to persevere with Aiden Markram and Reeza Hendricks for the spot in the top-order – most likely No 3.
The duo, according to Du Plessis, will have a “straight shoot-out” for that one spot. De Villiers has publicly given his backing to Hendricks.
With Du Plessis – despite stating he’d prefer to bat No 3, but for the good of the team is happy to bat No 4, JP Duminy and David Miller rounding out the rest of the batting order, that leaves the No 7 spot up for grabs.
It would have been that 7 and 8 would have gone to two all-rounders, but that was before Du Plessis noticed how the all-rounders impacted on South Africa’s bowling.
Tahir, a key wicket-taking weapon in the middle overs, was being played with greater care by opposing batsmen, knowing they could score off whoever the all-rounder was bowling at the other end.
The series against India proved a crucial point to Du Plessis. Tahir picked up one wicket in four matches, conceded 175 runs, with a 5.52 economy rate.
The Proteas don’t want the opposition to just see off Tahir, milking him for a run-a-ball.
They want them to attack him, and if there is a release of pressure at the other end, it makes the job of opposing batsmen easier.
Once Steyn got back to full fitness, and was then firing furiously as he did in the two matches he played against Zimbabwe, Du Plessis felt the strategy for the World Cup needed to change.
Why choose three out of the four strike bowlers when you can choose all four?
And the decision to have Tahir open the bowling on a couple of occasions against Zimbabwe was another interesting element to the plan to keep opposing sides guessing.
Which all means, just the one all-rounder to help balance the starting team. Dwaine Pretorius, Chris Morris and Andile Phehlukwayo are the primary candidates for now.
It’s quite late in the day to make such a drastic change of plan, but not too late. There are 13 matches – including the current tour of Australia – before the World Cup, to bed it down.
It is a plan that, as Du Plessis stated, is dependent on everyone being fit, and as his good friend AB put it with regards the batting, in form.
The strategy itself is risky, but seldom have South African teams at World Cups taken risks.
And we all know what the history of not doing so has left the Proteas with as far as the World Cup is concerned.