A Proteas team striving for form comes up against Australia in the 50-over format, writes TOM SIZELAND.
The Proteas were finally back in the Test arena in late-August, eight months after their series defeat to England. It was an arduous wait – forced to see themselves slip down to sixth in the Test rankings and helpless to do anything about it. Their series against New Zealand was just the beginning of a spell that sees them play as many as 15 Tests in the space of a year. One format they haven’t had to wait patiently for is the 50-over one, but waiting patiently for results are the frustrated public. After a disappointing past few months leading up to the NZ Test series, they get another stab in coloured clothing in October, and once again, the Australians are their opponents, albeit with a depleted squad.
The Aussies are on a bit of a demolition course at the moment. They are the world champions and the No 1 side in the world, and besides the blip of a series defeat to New Zealand in February, they’ve won ODI series against England and India. Then there was the Tri-Nation series, which saw them crowned champions, too. They beat a spirited West Indies in the final, this after beating South Africa on the way. The wounds are still fresh for the Proteas, and that series shows there’s a lot of work to be done.
Their upcoming five-match duel on home shores is especially intriguing as it is about more than just bragging rights. The Saffas make the return trip Down Under in November for a three-match Test series, the third of which will be their first ever day-night Test. Psychological warfare will now be on the cards as both sides look to gather momentum going into that series in Australia. You might ask why a five-match ODI series has been dumped on them in-between Test series. Well, the ICC Champions Trophy isn’t too far off – the Proteas will be happy to get some games under their belts and tinker with the side where necessary ahead of the June 2017 showdown.
South Africa won both of their previous five-match series at home 3-2, the former, of course, culminating in one of the greatest ODIs of all time, affectionately known as the ‘438’ game. You have to go back to 2011 to witness the last time Australia came here and won an ODI series. The tourists won by three wickets in the deciding match in Durban. Missing from that series was an injured AB de Villiers, and it’s no coincidence that his absence played its part in South Africa’s defeat. De Villiers admittedly feels he’s getting a bit long in the tooth and a plethora of injuries kept him out of the New Zealand series, but there’s no doubting how intrinsic he is to their plans in this format.
‘I did fool myself a bit in thinking I could just keep going and going and it has caught up with me a bit,’ the Test and ODI skipper said on missing the two Tests in August. ‘I love playing for my country and I would love to play as long as I can. You’ve got to look after your body sometimes and that’s happening now. Hopefully I will be ready to go and will tackle the Aussies in October. A lot of cricket in all three formats all over the world definitely played a role.’
That last sentence is something which would surely have irked Russell Domingo. The Proteas coach is under huge amounts of pressure at the moment due to their dip across the formats, and there are some suggestions he might not see out the year in his role, let alone his contract, which runs out in April next year.
‘There is a lot of cricket being played, a lot of money to be made,’ said a frustrated Domingo. The Tri-Nation series exit came in-between the Indian Premier League and the Caribbean Premier League, both of which featured De Villiers, among others. ‘The No 1 priority should be South Africa. The big challenge for me is making sure international cricket is the main priority for my players,’ he continued. ‘You can have all the big names you want, but they need to perform on the pitch. Players need to be hungry to represent and perform at optimum level for their country.’
One of the ‘big names’ he’s surely referring to is Faf du Plessis, who skippered the Test team against New Zealand in the absence of De Villiers. There’s no doubting the quality of the T20 skipper, but his Test form, which resulted in his omission from the fourth Test against England at Centurion in January, definitely knocked his confidence, before responding well with a first Test century for almost two years. It was against Australia, however, back in 2014, where he seriously rose to prominence. It took him over three and a half years to score his first ODI century, and he did it against the Baggy Greens in a triangular series in Harare, before going on to hit two more centuries and a 96 in his next four innings. It was an incredible surge of form, and his stats over the past few years might just surprise you. He’s averaged over 50 throughout each of 2014, 2015, and to date, 2016. Combine those three years, and you have five centuries and 15 half-centuries from 42 innings at an average of 55.02.
The senior players need to get the Proteas through this difficult phase. It’s difficult to call it a transition phase, as they haven’t made too many personnel changes to the side that bowed out of the World Cup early last year. That’s not to say that they’re short of reinforcements. There have been some admirable domestic performers to have come out of the domestic competitions last year, as well as the displays shown from the SA U19, SA A and SA Emerging sides recently.
Perhaps it’s time to inject some fresh talent at the highest level. Despite this, Domingo seems reluctant to throw new faces into the deep end. On the plus side, what he does have at his disposal is a resurgent Quinton de Kock and a rampant Kagiso Rabada, who picked up a record six CSA Awards in July. While an air of doubt hangs over a number of the more senior players in the side, the young pair are here to stay, and will play just as big a role when the Aussies come to town.
– This article first appeared in the October 2016 issue of SportsClub magazine.