For a team whose batting has pushed the boundaries of what is possible in the modern game, the Proteas have been slumming it of late. Of the sides that have achieved the mythical one-day international (ODI) total of 400 runs in an innings, the Proteas have done it the most, crossing the mark no less than six times compared to gluttonous run scorers India’s five.
Yet, in recent matches, the Proteas have battled to pass 300, which by today’s standards is the new 250. In the 15 ODIs the Proteas have played this year, only once have they passed the 300-run mark with 363/7, batting first against Sri Lanka in August.
Batting second and chasing middling totals might not have not given the Proteas the opportunity to push past 300 runs in a substantial percentage of those matches, but when batting first, there have been more than enough chances to do so, and for a variety of mitigating factors, they haven’t been able to.
Their newfound shyness of big totals was notably apparent in how they fared against lowly Zimbabwe recently, where in three matches they couldn’t bully their minnow neighbours for a big score. The Proteas batted first only once, but they also battled to reel in Zimbabwe’s low scores.
Explaining the slump
The reasons for the dip in the Proteas’ batting explosiveness are numerous: injuries to senior players at inopportune moments; the retirement of AB de Villiers, a once-in-a-generation batsman, from international cricket; and new batsmen finding their feet in the international game.
Geoffrey Toyana, the former Highveld Lions coach who is now the team’s high performance director, has a few theories on the batting malaise gripping Ottis Gibson’s team, the most prominent being how the Proteas hope to fill the De Villiers-shaped hole in their middle order.
“AB retiring a year before the World Cup has robbed them not only of his runs, but of his leadership, his quality as a fielder, and his sheer presence as a player. The younger players could have learned so much from batting with him,” said Toyana.
Given that De Villiers was a genius stroke-maker, a master technician and a belligerent hitter in one, replacing him was always going to demand an elegant solution. Another De Villiers was not simply going to roll off the assembly line. Wouldn’t the Proteas be able to use two batsmen to form a composite De Villiers of sorts? Not according to Toyana: “We’ve had issues with that all-rounder position at number seven. To add an extra batsman would mess with the balance of the team, because you still need five frontline bowlers.”
Mythical number seven
The question of who should step in at number seven was initially created by the retirement of Jacques Kallis, whose ability with bat and ball meant he was worth two players to the team as both a top-four batsman and a frontline bowler. It’s an issue that looks no closer to being dealt with than it was when Wayne Parnell and Farhaan Behardien began auditioning for the position.
A sign of how difficult it has been to fill the vacancy is that Behardien is with the Proteas in Australia for their three ODI and one T20 series, even though he doesn’t really bowl. Toyana’s proposed solution for the position – hopefully to enable one batsman to replace De Villiers up the order – is the injured Wiaan Mulder, 20, whose numbers in limited-overs cricket don’t add up simply because he’s just begun his career.
Nicknamed “Baby Kallis” when he began playing for the Highveld Lions as a schoolboy two years ago, Mulder has impressive first class figures, but he has been less than sensational in the seven ODIs he’s played so far, with a highest score of 19 not out, an average of 14.25, and best bowling figures of 2/59. “If he were fit, Mulder would be a solution,” said Toyana. “I know the stats don’t suggest he’s the quality player he is, but he’s the guy for the future. He’s a genuine batsman with an X-factor, no baggage from previous World Cups, and he thrives under pressure and playing in big games.”
With one eye on next year’s World Cup in England, Gibson has turned his attention for now to the older and more experienced Chris Morris, who can bowl fast, has a good short ball, hits it a mile when he gets a hold of it, and is a great fielder. Toyana’s simple assessment of the two players’ qualities is: “Morris is the better bowler and Mulder is the better batsman.”
Pressure at the top
Missing De Villiers and the question mark hanging over the number seven spot aren’t the only reasons the Proteas have struggled to put runs on the board of late, according to Toyana. “There’s pressure on the six or seven batters looking to book a spot in the World Cup team.”
Quinton de Kock’s knock of 47 against Australia in the first ODI on Sunday was an encouraging glimpse of his old self, something he’ll hope to build on in Friday’s second instalment. But he has appeared to have his freedom reined in by the absence of De Villiers and the injured JP Duminy and Hashim Amla, who also has not been his usual flash self at the top of the order of late.
“Class is permanent,” Toyana reminded. “These guys [Amla and De Kock] have performed in the past, and it’s a matter of a few good innings for things to fall back into place. They have to be given the opportunity, because we have a chance with them playing there. Amla and De Kock is the best opening combination for us.
“The quality is there, and the more the guys play together, the more they’ll get to know each other as a batting unit. Faf [Du Plessis] is a great leader and a good batsman. Guys like Amla and David Miller have to come to the party and put up good numbers.”