South Africa’s decision to bowl first in a tournament final against Australia said a lot for the team’s progress.
How far has this Proteas’ ODI side come over the past 16 months? The stats tell a story.
Between the end of a disastrous 2013 ICC Champions Trophy campaign and the beginning of the Triangular series in Zimbabwe, South Africa won 13, lost eight, and there was one no result. Significantly, seven of the eight losses were down to the Proteas’ inability to chase down an opposition total.
They came into the Triangular series against Australia and Zimbabwe with a reputation for first inning bullying and second innings choking. It’s a reputation they would attempt to shrug, and with some success, when they chased down a total of 327 set by Australia in the early rounds. Come the final, they made the ultimate statement when they won the toss and put the world No2 side into bat.
It said a lot for the confidence within the Proteas side. They’ve progressed a great deal over the past year and a half, and their batsmen have made waves over the past few weeks.
That said, a decision to bowl first was always going to place the South Africans under pressure. Collectively, the bowling has been average to ineffective. And while the batsmen chased down that big total set by Australia earlier in the competition, the failures in the second innings over the past two years or so still outweigh the successes. They had no reason for such confidence.
De Villiers obviously felt differently. His decision was vindicated when Dale Steyn took four wickets in the decider, and the spin bowlers kept the Aussie batsmen in check. The South African bowlers ensured that the batsmen would chase a modest target of 218.
Faf du Plessis was named man of the series following three centuries in the preliminaries and a knock of 96 in the final. Du Plessis’s contribution went a long way to winning the tournament for South Africa, but having successfully filled that No 3 slot, he’s made a far greater statement in the longer term.
Quinton De Kock, Hashim Amla, Du Plessis, De Villiers, JP Duminy, David Miller. It’s a top six that boasts a blend of guts and innovation, a combination capable of adapting to the situation, whether it’s consolidation that’s required or an increase in run rate in the latter overs of an innings.
That said, the Proteas still have some way to go. They must build on their win in Zimbabwe. They must carry their winning form through to the series against New Zealand and Australia later this year, and inflict some psychological damage on the two host nations of the 2015 World Cup.
The Proteas batsmen will take some momentum into those series, as will Steyn, the best bowler on the planet. Steyn showed his versatility in the recent final in Harare, using reverse swing to confound four opposition batsmen and ultimately destroy all chances of Australian resistance.
But more will be needed Down Under in the coming months, and at the World Cup itself. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, the Proteas rely too heavily on Steyn in the big matches. It’s high time that bowlers start firing as unit.
Imran Tahir has been effective in this series, while Aaron Phangiso and part-time JP Duminy have also contributed to keep the opposition honest. However, more will be expected of the seamers in conditions conducive to quick bowling over the next few months.
Death bowling has been a big problem for South Africa in recent times. It’s a concern that they’re still relying on Steyn to do the bulk of the damage with the ball, and that they are yet to fill that all-rounder’s slot since Jacques Kallis retired.
There is much to be gained from the coming tour to Australasia. The Proteas may have won easily in Zimbabwe, but questions remain about their effectiveness as a bowling unit and thus their balance as a team. The Proteas currently have the batsmen to match any team on the planet, and will feel confident that they can chase an imposing total. But the bowlers need to start contributing, and making the batsmen’s job that much easier.