Top order a perennial South African problem as World Cup approaches
Faf du Plessis was clear: He and the national team’s coach Ottis Gibson “definitely got more answers” out of the Proteas’ successful tour of Australia.
In one sense Du Plessis is right. The South Africans are learning to play with this new composition for the starting team – four wicket-taking bowlers, six frontline batsmen and an all-rounder.
The bowlers, especially the seamers, were outstanding, with the reward for all of Dale Steyn’s hard work while rehabbing entirely justified. Lungi Ngidi and Kagiso Rabada were less consistent, but it is still early in the season. Imran Tahir had a poor tour by his standards, but Du Plessis was quite rightly not bothered as Tahir’s record speaks for itself and he will bounce back.
Where Du Plessis and Gibson didn’t get answers was the No 7 spot and the top order. With the latter, Du Plessis appears to have forced himself into an answer concerning what he’d described pre-tour as a “straight shoot-out” between Aiden Markram and Reeza Hendricks.
“Aiden at No 3 was a positive. He looked good,” Du Plessis said after arriving back in the country this week. “I’d still like to see him score a hundred but he’s starting to find his feet there.”
Therein lies an important aspect for Markram. He certainly played well and looked dominant. But are scores of 36, 19 and 32 in the three ODIs really up to World Cup standards? Perhaps it is – or has to be – when the opponent in the shoot-out, Hendricks, scored 44, 16 and eight in that series. Of the two, Markram had the look of a player capable of tearing an attack apart.
There remain concerns about his ability against spin but the World Cup is not being played in the sub-continent.
Hendricks looks like he’ll go to England as a “back-up” batsman, while Markram is a starter whose spin bowling looks like it will play an increasingly more important role, given the concerns Du Plessis has about the No 7 spot.
That position will no longer permanently belong to a seam bowling all-rounder. In fact, said Du Plessis, the bowling is not even the most crucial role for whoever fills that position.
“No 7 is important from a runs point of view it’s 70 percent batting, 30 percent bowling,” said the captain.
Neither Andile Phehlukwayo nor Dwaine Pretorius fulfilled that mandate. They bowled well, taking eight wickets between them, but Pretorius, the only one of the pair to bat, scored just 15.
Once JP Duminy comes back fit in the new year he will carry some of the bowling load with someone like Markram, who bowled three overs in the last ODI in Australia, doing the rest if needed.
SA are sitting with the same conundrum that caused problems at the last World Cup in Australia – the lack of a trustworthy lower order all-rounder.
Before the 2015 tournament, they carried Ryan McLaren for two years and then left him out of the World Cup squad, choosing instead Vernon Philander and Wayne Parnell’s “X-factor”.
The latter let the side down while Philander got injured and then was controversially brought back for the semi-final in Auckland.
“The important thing for me is runs,” said Du Plessis. “You have to look at the fact that you’re playing in England; if you’re three (wickets) down (early), then a bowling all-rounder at seven with a tail like ours, you’re potentially exposing yourself to something that can go wrong.”
And so there’ll be a little more experimenting against Pakistan when they tour the country later this season.