Before the India ODIs, Faf du Plessis had hoped to see the ‘best of’ allrounder Chris Morris, who had overcome an injury layoff © Getty
In the months leading up to the Champions Trophy last year, South Africa’s one-day side looked like the finished article. They had a settled, powerful top six, a small army of all-rounders, two tall right-arm quicks, a left-arm option and a leg spinner who was at the peak of his powers. They won 12 matches on the trot, which included a 5-0 whitewash of Australia, and topped the ICC rankings. It looked as though all boxes were ticked.
All but one, anyway. In the three series leading up to the tournament, it was the small army of allrounders that attracted uncertainty. Chris Morris, Andile Phehlukwayo, Wayne Parnell and Dwaine Pretorius were all part of the squad, but hardly distinguishable from each other in terms of who offered the most value. Parnell brought the left-arm option, and Morris could hit the longest ball, but Phehlukwayo’s closing ability with bat and ball was improving and Pretorius was generally handy.
South Africa’s selectors seemed to think that two allrounders was the right amount, but sometimes they played three. Throughout the early part of 2017, they rotated the quartet continuously but the best combination was still elusive. A three-fer in an ODI against England just five days before their Champions Trophy opener made Parnell the flavour of the moment and so he accompanied Morris in the first two games of the tournament, but after the defeat to Pakistan, Parnell made way for Phehlukwayo against India. He made no impact, but in fairness South Africa lost that game in their heads rather than on the teamsheet.
Eight months later, there has at least been one step towards clarity. Parnell’s form in last year’s one-day tournament was so poor that he was loaned out by his franchise, the Cobras, while the national selectors have gone cold on Pretorius after his middling displays for a disintegrating Lions squad. That has left Morris and Phehlukwayo as the preferred options, but less clear has been the best way to balance the side in the face of strong opposition.
Both allrounders played the first ODI, only Morris played the second, both played the third and fourth before Morris’s injury kept him out of the fifth. South Africa had wanted to rest Morne Morkel in Port Elizabeth, but faced with Morris’s unavailability, Morkel played in a side that had Kagiso Rabada batting at No 8. When the middle order struggled – as they had throughout the series – the outcome was inevitable.
“I don’t think it’s the fault of the combination,” Hashim Amla reflected on Thursday ahead of the sixth and final ODI at Centurion. “Unfortunately those of us who are batting in the top six haven’t got the big hundreds that are match-changing. 270 or 280 is not a total beyond any batting unit’s reach, so I think the combinations we have had have been fine, it’s just those of us up front haven’t done it.”
Much has been made of South Africa’s decision to use the series against India to test out their wider player base, but gaining the best combination is the next step in the journey. Ahead of the series, Faf du Plessis highlighted the importance of Morris’s performances after a lengthy injury layoff. “He’s a very good white-ball player, so we’re hoping to see the best of him again,” he said. “It’s important for us as a team that he gets good opportunity and even starts winning games for South Africa. If you look ahead in a year and a half’s time, he is someone who can do something special in a big tournament.”
With just 65 runs and two wickets in the series, Morris is yet to come off. Now that he has overcome a stiff back he should get another opportunity on Friday (February 16). Phehlukwayo gave a glimpse of what he is capable of with his rocket-fuelled innings at the Wanderers, but has otherwise made little impact. The pair still look the best allround options for South Africa going forward but both have work to do.
Especially as there is another element in play. Ahead of the series, du Plessis also name-checked JP Duminy, and mentioned how important it was for him to bring his recent form for the Cobras to international level. In a series bursting with opportunity for the left-hander, he has managed just 99 runs from five innings. His half-century in Cape Town is the only one in his last 20 innings. By most measures, another failure at Centurion should spell the end for Duminy’s ODI career, but for several years his offspin has been the go-to option when a sixth bowling option has been required or the pitch has aided the slower bowlers. Most potential replacements would not offer a few overs. If South Africa move on from Duminy, they would need to revisit their balance once more.
The answers might not be obvious at the moment, but at least South Africa are being forced to ask some big questions. “The silver lining is that when you lose matches like we have, it highlights it and it’s only going to motivate you to get better at it. When it comes to other series or World Cups we’ll be better prepared,” said Amla. “Also we have won so many series in the past back-to-back, we were very fortunate and none of us took it for granted, but to lose a series like this gets your feet back on the ground. When you’re playing well and someone has a brilliant innings, cracks can be covered. But when you lose in this manner, whatever adjustments need to be made, you focus on it more. For me that’s a very positive thing.”
Amla also mentioned that coach Ottis Gibson “has a few ideas up his sleeve”. South Africa might need a few of them to help solve the question of balance as they look to the future.