The best bowler in world cricket is yet to leave his mark on the 2015 showpiece.
AB de Villiers has arrived at the 2015 World Cup. The cricket fraternity has had to wait until the third game of South Africa’s campaign to see one of the modern day greats at his very best. But in a way, it’s been worth it.
While De Villiers will go on to play more important innings for the Proteas – hopefully in the coming play-offs – he will struggle to match the recent performance in Sydney for innovation and dominance. The audacity, the footwork, the patent desire to break record after record… it was a remarkable display that will live on even if the Proteas’ title chances die in the next few weeks.
Indeed, if one is to view that match against the West Indies in isolation, one would be inclined to believe that the Proteas are looking good. Possibly dangerous. Two of their top three batsmen scored 50s to set the platform. De Villiers and Rilee Rossouw launched at the back end of the innings to send South Africa beyond 400. Imran Tahir subsequently claimed his first five-for in ODIs while Kyle Abbott chipped in with two important wickets.
But the Proteas would do well to maintain some perspective. They need to look at the performance against the West Indies in the context of their campaign as a whole.
While De Villiers’s individual contribution of 162 not out off 66 set all sorts of new precedents, the Proteas as a collective are back to square one. Following the performance against the West Indies, they have merely reaffirmed a pre-tournament perception that they boast a formidable top six and an average bowling attack.
Let’s give credit where it’s due. Imran Tahir has been the most consistent performer for the Proteas over their first three matches. He’s gained a lot of confidence, and will have an important role to play when the competition reaches the business end.
But Tahir is not the leader of the attack. The Proteas need one, or preferably both of their main fast bowlers setting the standard at a tournament of this magnitude. It hasn’t quite reached the stage where it’s do or die, but it should be a point of concern that neither Dale Steyn nor Morné Morkel have been at their fearsome best.
The balance of the bowling attack has, of course, been compromised by injuries. The Vernon Philander situation is a worry. The Proteas will hope that the seamer’s hamstring doesn’t play up later in the tournament.
South Africa may need all four seamers in the play-offs. Abbott showed recently why he must be considered for the big matches ahead of Wayne Parnell and Farhaan Behardien. His performance against the West Indies was encouraging, and he will be expected to build on that in the remaining pool games.
But South Africa will need more than just Abbott’s line length or Tahir’s googly to trouble the tournament favourites. There will come a point where an aggressive bowling performance will be needed to win a big match.
Australia and New Zealand have already posted some big totals in this tournament. It’s possible that the Proteas will find themselves in a situation where they have to defend a total to win a play-off, or even the final itself. And in that scenario, De Villiers, genius that he is, can’t help South Africa. The onus will be on a South African bowler to make the big play.
We’ve seen Steyn do it so many times before. His aggressive spells in the initial overs have often proved the undoing of key opposition batsmen. His swing in the middle overs and reverse swing at the death have also proved influential. His intensity is always infectious.
Steyn has struggled with an ailment in the early rounds of this tournament, and has not been at his fiery best as a result. There is, however, still time to find form before the matches that really matter.
While I maintain that the selectors erred in omitting Ryan McLaren from the World Cup squad, the Proteas’ bowlers can’t be written off. What they need is for Abbott and Tahir to continue on their current course. They also need a bit of luck in terms of Philander and JP Duminy regaining and maintaining fitness. More than anything, they need Steyn, the very best version of himself, leading the charge.
We’re still waiting on Steyn to make a statement at this tournament. He’s been quiet to date, and until he finds his voice, South Africa’s chances of lifting the World Cup will remain in doubt.