Team South Africa preview: Bowl the opposition out is the mantra

Head coach Ottis Gibson genuinely believes that the Proteas possess the firepower to dismiss any team in the tournament inside 50 overs.

South Africa’s hopes of staying on course will mainly rest on the bowling performances of Dale Steyn and Kagiso Rabada.   -  K. R. Deepak

South Africa has a plan for this World Cup and it’s a simple one — bowl the opposition out. Perhaps that should come as no surprise given the bowling background of head coach Ottis Gibson. But he genuinely believes that the Proteas possess the firepower to dismiss any team in the tournament inside 50 overs.

Gibson has never made a secret of his admiration for Dale Steyn and did everything in his power to keep a place open for him in both the Test and ODI team when the veteran was struggling with injuries — he even staked his own position and reputation on a successful return when the national selectors were beginning to look to the future elsewhere. “When Steyn is fit he is in the team; it’s not a question of ‘if’, it’s a question of ‘when’,” he said a year ago.

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Gibson describes Kagiso Rabada and Lungi Ngidi as “two of the most exciting fast bowlers I’ve ever worked with” and, of course, 40-year-old Imran Tahir’s credentials have been proven for over a decade. If the pitches do become dry and flat as the tournament progresses, South Africa has a second match-winning wrist spinner in Tabraiz Shamsi — who also can’t bat.

History suggests that every champion team has hit the rails at some point and found a way to recover and win. Australia was 84-7 against New Zealand in 2003 before Andy Bichel top-scored with 64 at No. 9 and it won the match by 96 runs with Brett Lee taking 5-42. That sort of performance is hard to imagine with a four-man tail.

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The all-rounders

There are three genuine all-rounders in the squad but pre-tournament planning would suggest there will only be space for one of them — Andile Phehlukwayo — in the starting XI. Gibson and captain Faf du Plessis are loathe to sacrifice any of their bowling potency with the inclusion of batting all-rounder Dwaine Pretorius while Chris Morris only made it into the 15 at the last minute as a reserve fast bowler and that is how he will start the tournament.

"We understand the level of expectation amongst the nation’s supporters and our responsibility, you can’t hide from that. But to perform at your best you need to be calm and clear-headed, not clouded or confused by unrealistic targets. We need to be focussed but relaxed," says JP Duminy.   -  AFP

The other way to shorten the tail is by including Pretorius — or all seven specialist batsmen — and using JP Duminy’s off-spin as a frontline bowling option. It’s a risk the team has been unwilling to take for the majority of his 12-year career and is unlikely to become one now. A bullish Gibson, however, says he isn’t concerned by the lack of runs in the lower order. “Their job is to take wickets — it is the job of the top seven to score the runs.”

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One of those top seven hasn’t been scoring many runs at all in recent months. Make that 18 months. Hashim Amla, one of the greatest ODI batsmen in history — from any country in any era — is a long way past his best and has been heading inexorably in that direction for a year and a half. The romantic deniers will tell you it’s just a matter of time before he comes right, that the batting numbers are telling an untruth.

But the brutal evidence that his once hawkish eyes have slowed with age comes with the fact that he has dropped 40 percent of the catches that came his way in the same period. But he will start the tournament at the top of the order alongside Quinton de Kock.

For many observers, South Africa’s best team might only happen by accident with the ‘seventh’ batsman, Aiden Markram, opening alongside de Kock and the unpredictable but dauntingly effective Morris fitting in to one of the fast bowling slots. Given Amla’s form and the likelihood of an injury to Rabada, Ngidi or Steyn, the Proteas might easily graduate to a better balanced XI during the course of the tournament.

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Flying under the radar

One aspect of this team, and this World Cup, which will be different to any of the others, is the weight of expectation on the players’ shoulders. Du Plessis was just a young man starting out when he saw the effect of defeat on Graeme Smith in 2011 (Smith retired from ODI cricket immediately) and then the devastation it caused his best friend, A. B. de Villiers, four years ago. He believes their angst was grotesquely disproportionate to what is, after all, only sport.

He has reminded all of the squad that they can only do their best — and that is all he expects of them and all they should expect of themselves.

Previous World Cup teams have started among the favourites and believed the hype. Not this one. The phrase they all enjoyed using in the final few days before departure was “flying under the radar.” This a good way to avoid detection but aeroplanes which attempt it also run the risk of crashing into buildings.