Defeat from the jaws of victory has left South Africa with more questions than answers, with the Champions Trophy looming, writes GARY LEMKE.
For the second successive match, the coin fell the right way for AB de Villiers, and for the second time he opted to put England in to bat. This is what South Africa are most comfortable with: chasing down totals. It’s been that way for years, most famously underlined when knocking off the 434 required to beat Australia at the Wanderers 11 years ago.
Yet, against England, South Africa were unable to match the totals put up by the hosts, 339 at Headingley and 330 at the Rose Bowl. On both occasions an England batsman scored a century, and most times when a player gets a hundred, you go on to win the game.
Quinton de Kock hit 98 in the Proteas’ reply in their second ODI and, ironically, it was the two runs he fell short of three figures that separated the sides at the end, quite as if a statistician’s point should underscore that statement.
Yet, with 10 runs needed off the final 10 balls and the big-hitting David Miller and Chris Morris at the crease, you would have expected South Africa to get over the line. They didn’t – which only helps fuel the arguments of those who think the world’s No 1-ranked ODI team has a problem closing out the deal when things get close.
The early overhead conditions favoured the Proteas, and for large chunks of the contest they seemed to be in the box seat. And that’s despite another shoddy performance in the field, with five dropped catches and a number of misfields costing them. Ben Stokes was dropped off his first two balls – the first went straight through Hashim Amla’s hands at first slip off the luckless debutant Keshav Maharaj – and he went on to make a Man of the Match hundred. One doesn’t require a university degree to work out where things went wrong for South Africa.
Before this three-match contest against England, captain De Villiers placed the importance of ‘being here to win the series’ that is a curtain-raiser to the Champions Trophy, of which the Proteas should be the favourites, given their world ranking and form coming in to the tournament.
Yet, the manner of team selection and their performances, especially in the field, point more to an outfit that is looking to experiment, with their focus on the Champions Trophy, not on the immediate task. It’s a dangerous game to play. Winning is a habit, but by the same token, so is losing and in stacking their side with all-rounders for the second ODI, South Africa have now created a conundrum for themselves.
All will be forgiven of course, should the Proteas win the Champions Trophy, but one might have preferred them to be making the biggest statement of all by beating England in this pre-tournament series and being the side everyone fears.
However, there are more questions than answers from these first two ODIs. They mainly come from the bowling department.
There is little question that South Africa prefer chasing down totals, and normally do so with ruthless efficiency, but they have now also shown their hand to their Champions Trophy opponents. Should the toss not go the way of De Villiers, the likelihood is that their opponents will insert the Proteas and then ask the South African bowlers to defend whatever target is posted.
That could prove to be the Achilles heel. In the second ODI, Andile Phehlukwayo was asked to bowl the final over – and the dangerous Moeen Ali swiped him for two boundaries in the opening two balls to put the pressure on. Ultimately, the match came down to the final over of the innings and when all is said and done, England’s bowlers handled it better.
England are a daunting batting line-up at the moment. In their last 11 innings, when batting first they have totalled 324, 444, 302, 309, 350, 321, 296, 328, 328, 339 and 330.
Suddenly, it’s they who have the momentum going into the Champions Trophy. And South Africa will surely still be rubbing their temples wondering why they are not level in this series heading into the decider.
The comfort they will take, is that they haven’t performed particularly well with the ball or in the field, yet fell only three runs short of beating England at the Rose Bowl. But, it’s the fine lines and small margins that separate the best sides at this elite level of competition. And, up to now, the Proteas are the ones who are under pressure to fix things and get their selection right before the Champions Trophy gets under way.
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