JOHANNESBURG – There is just over five weeks to go to the T20 World Cup and despite all the problems of the past 18 months, the men’s national team is actually in a good space.
Sure, they haven’t really been tested in some different areas lately, the fielding is still prone to errors and the balance of the starting XI is always open to debate. On that latter topic, head coach Mark Boucher, said on Tuesday, that South Africans had better just get used to that.
Unless you’re at the stadiums in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah where South Africa will be playing, you shouldn’t fret about the identity of the starting XI, because you’re not there to assess conditions. South Africa will pick its starting XI, based on conditions, said Boucher. Hold him and the Proteas to that.
The composition of the starting team will cause much debate. South Africa looked like being a batsman light in each match in the T20 series in Sri Lanka. Five frontline batsmen, with one seam bowling all-rounder and then bowlers, was the make up for the first two matches. It was five batsmen in the last match too, but then Dwaine Pretorius and Wiaan Mulder played in the third game, which again gave the team seven bowling options.
That appears to be the overall plan. South Africa – like they wanted to do at the 2019 50-over World Cup – want the bowlers to be at the forefront of its strategy. In England two years ago, it was the quicks, a plan that failed dismally because Dale Steyn and Lungi Ngidi weren’t fit, and Kagis Rabada had been bowled into the ground in the preceding two years.
This time, it’s not the quicks who are front and centre, rather a host of slow bowlers, that don’t include either Imran Tahir – who wasn’t picked at all – or George Linde, who’s in the reserves despite playing the majority of matches in the last year.
Keshav Maharaj played his first T20 International last week, and now it looks like the most ingenious move on the part of the selectors to take him to the UAE. Maharaj is high on confidence, is now thriving as a senior member of the squad and as he showed in Sri Lanka is tactically astute.
Tabraiz Shamsi, Bjorn Fortuin and Aiden Markram round out a spin unit that has quickly become potent.
It is Markram’s improvement with the ball that has so many wondering why not just have the extra frontline batsman - as insurance.
South Africa appear to have made peace with the fact that they don’t have to score 200 to win a T20 match. In fact, the three times they have scored over 200 during Boucher’s tenure, they’ve lost. That’s also happened when they’ve scored 191 and 188 against Pakistan.
The big test for the strategy and the batsmen, will be the match where the bowlers have an off day. The Proteas are extremely reliant on Quinton de Kock, who fortunately is – as Boucher put it – “in a good space,” and in form.
Reeza Hendricks has quietly put together a good run of scores this year, and in his last four innings – three alongside De Kock and one with Bavuma – has shared two fifty-run stands and two partnerships of over a hundred.
Markram has made a good start to life batting in the no.3 position, averaging 69.50 in three innings, but admits, it’s still a role he’s uncomfortable doing.
The middle order wasn’t tested against Sri Lanka, and the best gauge is the West Indies, where it was hit and miss for Rassie van der Dussen, David Miller and for that series Linde.
The ‘death bowling’ didn’t get examined either in Sri Lanka, but concerns remain given what was seen in the Caribbean.
However, for all that, South Africa will go to the World Cup confident. It's a team with a lot of variety in the squad, but a group that acknowledges, as Boucher said Tuesday, that it is “definitely not the finished product.”