NEIL MANTHORP: Maybe the Proteas have stumbled onto ...

3 Oct 2023

World Cup warm-up matches used to mean a great deal more as a gauge of form than they do these days as 14-man teams play out small scenarios within their 50 overs each and have as much interest in winning or losing as they would during a competitive net session.

The first of SA’s scheduled practice games, against Afghanistan, was washed out on Saturday, leaving Monday’s outing against New Zealand at the Greenfield Stadium in Thiruvananthapuram as their only netless workout before the first game against Sri Lanka in Delhi on Saturday.

The Black Caps set the tone with Devon Conway (78*) and Kane Williamson (37*) retiring during a total of 321/6 in which the Proteas used nine bowlers, led by Lungi Ngidi (3/33) and Marco Jansen (3/45), and collected some slog-over wickets. Do the Proteas even have nine bowlers in the squad? you may ask.

Reserve wicket-keeper Heinrich Klaasen turning his arm over for three (overs) suggests he is being considered as the emergency option in case of injury during a match, or a violent assault on one of the proper bowlers. And they may just have stumbled onto something. Klaasen used to be a semi-serious, part-time off-spinner. He’d be milk and honey to the batsmen in India. But the seam-up, medium pace he delivered on Monday was so filthy no self-respecting batsman in the world would dare risk dismissal against him. He might just be able to burgle a couple of cheap overs should the need arise.  

There was also confirmation of SA’s blueprint with the bat which sees a full turn of the tactical wheel from 20 years ago when the modus operandi was to start cautiously and build towards a crescendo at the end. Back in the day it was the reflection of a cautious attitude based on avoiding defeat before aiming for victory.  

These days that “safety first” approach is dictated by the length of SA’s tail and justified by the extraordinary power of the top order if they are still in play by the time the final 10 overs start.

Batting records in white-ball cricket are being set and broken all the time but some have more impact than others on the way the game is played, and how much respect they command from opposition teams. When Klaasen and David Miller scored 173 runs from the final 10 overs of the fourth ODI against Australia, the rest of the world took note.

It will shape the way many other teams approach playing against SA. The bowling prerogative in international cricket for 10 years has been to take early wickets. As head coach of the Proteas in 2012, Gary Kirsten predicted that incisive bowling in the first 15 overs would win more ODIs in future than any other aspect of the game. Even if they were expensive.

He foresaw larger totals being set and targets being chased down ad infinitum and concluded that bowling teams out would become critical to winning games rather than defending scores. There will always be an importance to the ability to bowl dot balls and save runs in the field, but they would be outweighed by the effect of taking wickets on the result.

Defensive bowlers would remain important, but attacking bowlers would be more important. They complement each other, of course. A miserly over at one end increases the need to score from the other. But as batting innovations and scoring techniques improved, as well as the bats themselves, and boundary sizes remained the same, cheap overs and miserly overs would diminish on increasingly flat pitches. And so it has proved.

When teams face up to SA, they may not just feel that early inroads are desirable but that they are essential. It means bowling more risk-reward deliveries which can be expensive, and bowling more early overs from their strike bowlers than would be ideal. If that doesn’t work, they have less strike power at the end of the innings.

What does a team have to fear when they are 35/0 after the first 10-over power play when they can score 173 in the final 10 overs? It all comes down to “wickets in hand”. Just as it was 20 years ago, but for different reasons.

On Monday Quinton de Kock reached 50 from 57 balls and Rassie van der Dussen made 51 from 56 balls. Even Klaasen played well within himself for 39 from 37 deliveries. Get used to it. With such a long tail, the Proteas need to tread carefully as they head towards the end of the innings.

It may not be the strategy chosen by teams with all-rounders at seven, eight and nine, but it is the only realistic one available to Temba Bavuma’s team. When it works, it is compelling and explosive. The questions are: can it work for six wins out of nine group games? And can it work in knockout games?      

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