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Cricket news - Twelve debutants later, are SA's World Cup plans any clearer?
South Africa wrapped up a series win against Pakistan in the decider at Newlands, showcasing little nerves as they chased down a target of 241. With the World Cup less than four months away, South Africa have won five out of their last six ODI series since Ottis Gibson took charge in mid-2017.
However, the essence of the blueprint drawn up under Gibson, in partnership with the skipper and national selection panel convener, Linda Zondi, was that short term goals would not be a priority. The 'Vision 2019', a phrase reiterated quite often by Zondi in the build-up to the World Cup, was formed with an eye on generating a vast talent pool ahead of the marquee event in England. It meant taking a "small step away from the now" and a "bigger step into the future" - or in short, sacrificing bilateral series wins in order to find the best fifteen for the World Cup.
A feisty plan that was conceived with much exuberance now seems to be stuck in the first phase - experimentation. Since Gibson took over, as many as 30 players have been used across six ODI series, with 12 players handed ODI debuts in that period - Aiden Markram, Dane Paterson, Willem Mulder, Khaya Zondo, Heinrich Klaasen, Lungi Ngidi, Reeza Hendricks, Junior Dala, Christiaan Jonker, Duanne Olivier, Rassie van der Dussen and Beuran Hendricks. That is ideally a large enough flock to identify the last few spots in the team or to improve the bench strength.
Yet, aside from Ngidi and perhaps van der Dussen - after his exploits in the Pakistan series - none are pledged a World Cup spot yet and trials are still on with time running out. The second phase of the plan was to allow the World Cup squad time to nail down their roles within the side, but just five games against Sri Lanka remain for that to happen.
South Africa's dominant batting line-up at the onset of the plan, headlined by Quinton de Kock, Hashim Amla, Faf du Plessis, AB de Villiers, JP Duminy and David Miller, hardly required any tweaks but as du Plessis put it, the vision also had to have room for eleventh hour emergencies.
The shot in the arm emerged sooner than expected with de Villiers stepping away a year before the World Cup. The Proteas were left with a gaping hole to fill and few tested options to bank upon. Aiden Markram, among the trusted few in the younger batting pool, was lumped with the additional responsibility of captaincy after two ODIs and promptly struggled. The talented batsman had no room at the top and was played out of position where he never really showed the kind of assurance he did in Tests. His constant difficulties against spin remained unaddressed and at this point, he isn't even certain of making the flight to England.
Van der Dussen is a late boost to South Africa's World Cup plans but questions hover around why he wasn't tried earlier in Australia given South Africa's middle-order issues. His chance, even if late, has come and he has grabbed it but the same can't be said of a few unlucky performers from the Momentum One Day Cup.
Jon-Jon Smuts is a glaring example in this regard, having been a regular feature in the top 10 run-scorers list in the tournament since 2015. Combine this with his reliable bowling and it defies logic as to why South Africa decided he wasn't an able replacement, if not a better fit, to JP Duminy when the all-rounder was out injured.
Duminy's case is queer. With just three scores over 40 since 2017 and only four ODI hundreds - three against Zimbabwe and one against Netherlands - in his entire career, he hasn't exactly moved mountains but he, apparently, does not even require a back-up. With so much trial and error going on, Smuts ought to have been another player South Africa should have looked at, but instead the focus has remained on the bowlers.
Of the 12 debutants tried, five were out and out seamers while one was a pace bowling all-rounder in Willem Mulder. Of the batsmen tried, Zondo, Klaasen and Jonker were brought in with an aim to up the ante from the lower middle-order but none of them has put their hand up with standout performances - although Klaasen might still make it to England as a back-up wicket-keeper. Reeza Hendricks, partly, and van der Dussen (in the series against Pakistan) have stood out, but the experiments related to batting seem to have come a tad too late to be sure of anybody, which is surprising given that batting was always the area that craved attention.
Since Gibson's arrival in September 2017, South Africa's pace attack has the second best strike rate among the 2019 World Cup teams in ODIs - 33.9 - after Pakistan's 33.5. The Proteas were also the leaders in terms of strike rate in the build up to the 2015 World Cup. With Rabada and Ngidi promising additions since that event, the bowling barely required fine-tuning or at least warranted a little less experimentation. In the 14 times South Africa have piled on a total above 300 batting first after the World Cup, they haven't lost even once - the best win percentage among all teams - which further goes to show the need to focus on batting personnel. The bowlers have clearly done their job once the batsmen have done theirs. Like the fruitless, yet big, Amla-van der Dussen partnership in the first Port Elizabeth ODI showed, the bowlers need a lot more help from the batsmen, who are guilty of not setting up big enough targets.
Batting, though, has remained a cross to bear for them, with the team batting average of 33.22 (30.49 in the absence of de Villiers) being fifth best after India, England, Pakistan and New Zealand in Gibson's reign. Aside from the experienced trio of du Plessis, Amla and de Kock, the support cast of Miller, Duminy, Hendricks, Markram and Klaasen have batting averages in the lower 30s. They have just eight individual hundreds in the time frame under discussion whereas in the lead-up to the last World Cup (beginning 2014), they had 18 hundreds, which was the highest for any team.
If batting woes can be put down to a slight lack in individual brilliance, the conundrum with all-rounders has trespassed into the zone of absurdity. Andile Phehlukwayo, whose temperament and grit under pressure have been commendable, is a certainty in the World Cup squad but South Africa seem to be intent on replicating their 1990s team which batted deeper than today's England. Except that, this time they do not seem to have the right personnel for it.
Chris Morris, Dwaine Pretorius and Willem Mulder have been tried in turns, and injury breaks to Morris and Mulder haven't stopped them from going back to the duo just ahead of the World Cup. Michael Holding raised a pertinent question in the commentary box during the fifth ODI against Pakistan. "Does anyone know why Philander is not in this squad at all? Can someone give an explanation?" the West Indian queried.
Philander last played an ODI in 2015 but with the No. 7 spot undecided and none of Olivier, Beuran Hendricks and Dala making strong cases for the extra seamer's spot, the veteran all-rounder was a must-try. However, pyrotechnics and finishing skills seem to be the priority for that position and Philander, akin to someone like Pretorius, is more about stability than flamboyance. This seems to be in disagreement to the kind of player sought after at No. 7, despite Zondi suggesting him as an "option" before the Zimbabwe series. But like with the batting, the Proteas aren't really certain about roles identified for players or positions in the first place.
As another series culminates, South Africa, despite winning, still have around five World Cup spots to finalise and feel little closer to identifying their options than they were a few months ago.
"For the last 12 months we have been looking at players. In the next couple of months, the players have been told that the window is closing all the time," Gibson had said in October ahead of the ODI series against Australia.
But with Mulder being called up for the series decider against Pakistan, Olivier and Beuran Hendricks tried in the first half of the series, and Zondi declaring that Mzansi Super League find, Anrich Nortje, is another player they want to try, the experimentation phase is apparently still not finished. The 'Vision 2019' appears blurred now given that they have just one more series to finalise their pool before the ICC squad submission deadlines in April. They will want to ensure that this series win does not mask the bigger picture.
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