I contemplated writing this article when Jacques Kallis retired. I contemplated writing it again before the 2015 World Cup, and I contemplated writing it after South Africa were knocked out of the tournament by the heroic, leather-faced piece of luggage that is Grant Elliott.
Now, in the midst of a meaningless ODI series against England that has, despite its completely asinine existence (doing little more than fulfilling FTP requirements and pulling in some TV revenue) provided some utterly enthralling limited overs cricket — occasionally sans-electricity — I have decided that it is time.
South Africa, you have a team balance problem.
A top four featuring one of the greatest ODI batsmen of all time in AB de Villiers, a red-hot Quentin de Kock, a man who deserves to be in contention to open for an all-time ODI XI in Hashim Amla, and the more-than-handy Faf du Plessis. A bowling attack that not only features the likes of the brilliant Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel’s steepling bounce and the raw promise and pace of Kagiso Rabada, but deigns to leave out, at full strength, Kyle Abbott and Vernon Philander. Spin support from the inconsistent but dangerous Imran Tahir.
The lazy trope of choking in major tournaments notwithstanding, this is the core of a team that one would expect to dominate all comers in bilateral series. But, they don’t. They have a fantastic batting unit, and a fantastic bowling unit. However, since the retirement of Kallis, South Africa have never been able to connect the two.
The supporting batting talent is there; David Miller is a destructive hitter of the highest order. Rilee Rossouw is an incredibly talented batsman, albeit currently rocks-or-diamonds. Get him cheap, or he’ll make you pay. Even the much-maligned Farhaan Behardien has turned himself into a genuinely good lower order option — since the start of the 2014/15 season, he’s averaged a shade over 36 at a strike rate of 106.
In the same time period, JP Duminy has averaged 38 at a strike rate of 82, statistically no different to his career figures as a middle order accumulator.
Fans and commentators alike discuss the necessity of fitting an all-rounder into the mix. IPL darling David Wiese is the incumbent, with Ryan McLaren discarded (presumably for good, though never rule out an inexplicable recall). Wayne Parnell is on his way back from injury, but that ship has sailed and, well, it’s always been a little bit shit. Dwaine ‘Hashtag’ Pretorius is being talked up as the next big thing, while Obus ‘I’m big in Ireland’ Pienaar looked to have something about him before fading somewhat, his bowling becoming second string. Calvin Savage and Andile Phehlukwayo are both tipped as potential future all-rounders, but neither are the finished product.
The simple reality is that South Africa’s team balance does not allow any of these men to fit easily into the starting XI; they’re crying out for a top order batsman who is capable of bowling overs — a new Kallis. The closest approximation South Africa could potentially look towards is the theoretically-eligible Ryan ten Doeschate. Alas, that is not a workable option, and R10D isn’t nearly as good as his statistics would suggest.
The question is how best to structure the XI. How best to disperse the hitters and strike rotators throughout the team, to make the most of the skills each player possesses. And, within this framework, ensuring that there is sufficient bowling flexibility — a repeat of AB de Villiers fulfilling sixth bowler duties is something South Africa must actively avoid.
The solution is far from simple; there are many, many permutations to consider. The easiest way to slot David Miller into the team is to drop Duminy. However, Miller is not a number five; he is not a strike rotator. If a batting order is a cake, he’s the sugary, crowd-pleasing icing, not the far-less-sexy lump of sponge on which it must rest. Grant Elliott, he who knocked his country of accent out of the World Cup, is the perfect example of the value of an accumulator in the middle order. As was Michael Hussey before him. Duminy, imperfect as he is, plays this role. He also contributes handy fifth-bowler overs, splitting them with Behardien.
[Team A: 1. de Kock, 2. Amla, 3. du Plessis, 4. de Villiers, 5. Duminy, 6. Miller, 7. Behardien]
This is the crux of the problem — South Africa has the finishing talent with the bat, but none of the top order bowls. This leaves the side reliant upon the part-time combination of Duminy and Behardien to fill in the final ten overs. That is a difficult ask, let alone when that responsibility also involves covering for a specialist having a bad day (always a risk with Tahir in the side). The problem is compounded by the desire to get Rilee Rossouw into the team. He must bat in the top three. He is not a finisher, a closer, a chaser, a slogger — or whatever new-age term you want to put on lower order ODI batsmen.
[Team B: 1. de Kock, 2. Amla, 3. Rossouw, 4. de Villiers, 5. du Plessis, 6. Duminy, 7. Behardien]
Meanwhile, attempting to introduce an all-rounder into the XI leaves the batting dangerously short; Duminy at five, Behardien at six and the all-rounder at seven leaves little scope to recover from a top-order collapse, especially with none of the available all-rounders having the skills or experience to build an innings. A case in point is the selection of David Wiese in their most recent series against England, effectively at the expense of Rilee Rossouw..
[Team C: 1. de Kock, 2. Amla, 3. du Plessis, 4. de Villiers, 5. Duminy, 6. Behardien, 7. Wiese]
The ideal all-round option may well be Chris Morris — capable of batting and bowling at the death, he’s a bowling all-rounder first and foremost, but his clean striking ability means that, if protected by a top order regularly batting deep, he can potentially thrive in the #7 position. This, however, necessitates leaving out one of Duminy or Behardien, and replacing them with a specialist batsman focussed on rotating the strike and ensuring the lower order is not exposed early. And, once more, it leaves the batting feeling somewhat short.
[Team D: 1. de Kock, 2. Amla, 3. Rossouw, 4. de Villiers, 5. du Plessis, 6. Behardien, 7. Morris]
[Team E: 1. de Kock, 2. Amla, 3. Rossouw, 4. de Villiers, 5. du Plessis, 6. Duminy, 7. Morris]
That strike rotator role could be filled by demoting Faf du Plessis from number three to number five, allowing the space for Rossouw to bat in the top order, however it may equally be filled by a batsman from outside the squad.
If he were not in career-worst form stemming from his failed Test opener experiment, it might be possible for Stiaan van Zyl to full that role — with the bonus ability to bowl his Elliott-esque seamers — or Dean Elgar to reprise his Test match doggedness in the white ball middle order, while providing the second spin option which made Duminy so valuable. But can either van Zyl or Elgar step it up a gear in the final ten overs, to marshall the death of the innings as Michael Hussey has done so many times? In a team featuring AB de Villiers, does he even need to? Is he even good enough in white ball cricket to play as a specialist batsman? There are so many unanswered questions, making this a highly risky option.
[Team F: 1. de Kock, 2. Amla, 3. du Plessis, 4. de Villiers, 5. van Zyl, 6. Behardien, 7. Morris]
[Team G: 1. de Kock, 2. Amla, 3. du Plessis, 4. de Villiers, 5. Elgar, 6. Behardien, 7. Morris]
There is, however, a far more radical option. Hashim Amla is one of the classiest batsmen in world cricket. He can find gaps, rotate the strike, build an innings and increase his scoring rate as the match progresses. Moving Amla to number five, rotating the strike and batting deep into the innings, allows him to fill the role of the cool, senior head — a role that is so valuable in the middle order in contemporary ODI cricket. With de Kock’s increasing consistency and seniority opening, the desire to get Rossouw into the team — and his obvious talent at the top of the order — it is a reshuffle which could structure South Africa’s team far more strongly and, incidentally, give Amla a chance to recapture the form of his brilliant best — all the while providing the batting depth to allow the selection of a bowling-centric all-rounder.
[Team H: 1. de Kock, 2. Rossouw, 3. du Plessis, 4. de Villiers, 5. Amla, 6. Behardien, 7. Morris]
I think we have a winner.