March 27, 2016

What went wrong for South Africa

From the lack of clarity on AB de Villiers' batting position, to questionable team selection, their early World T20 exit was a familiar story

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Match Day - SA stars will feel this missed opportunity

If you feel like you've read this story before, you probably have. Apologies in advance that, yet again, you have to endure an analysis of a South African failure in their quest for major-tournament glory.

This time, they've stumbled before the real hurdles and are out of contention with a game to play. For a side that, according to the captain, had "all the bases covered" before the tournament, to have plundered those depths indicates that something went very, very wrong.

Although South Africa will endure their fair share of jibes, they actually seemed to do everything right in preparation. They won series in Bangladesh and India, to demonstrate their ability in subcontinental conditions. They beat England convincingly at home to take a psychological advantage into their tournament opener. They played more matches than everyone else, except Pakistan - who also exited in the group phase, which perhaps hints at the dangers of over-preparing. And Faf du Plessis believed this was their strongest squad. It probably was, but there were problems in a few areas.

Changing the plan
The debate dominating the build-up was who South Africa would choose to partner AB de Villiers at the top, not whether de Villiers would remain in the opening berth or not, which led many to believe de Villiers would stay there. He was promoted when Quinton de Kock lost form and was dropped for the India series, and then played in that role in the Australia series. Even when de Kock regained his touch and Hashim Amla made a case for his own inclusion with a string of strong scores, du Plessis was adamant that de Villiers' position was fixed.

"I think our strongest team is with AB at the top in India. If the World Cup was in South Africa, the thinking would be different," du Plessis said at the time. "We decided on AB at the top a while ago, and to change that would be a sign of panic."

De Villiers did not open in any of the three matches and came in as low as No. 5 in the West Indies game, after Rilee Rossouw, who was playing his first game in the tournament.

Either South Africa were bluffing all along - although that seems unlikely, because du Plessis also declared himself "not the kind of guy to change plans" - or they realised the richness of their resources with all three of de Kock, Amla and de Villiers in the team and had to find a way to accommodate all of them. They decided to deploy de Kock and Amla in their most natural position as openers and left de Villiers to float, which resulted in them not getting the best out of the most dangerous player they have.

David Wiese: too many allrounders spoil the broth? © Getty Images

Not changing the plan
In India, spin is a primary weapon and should be brought out early. Other teams use their spinners to open the bowling; South Africa insist on keeping Imran Tahir for after the Powerplay. The reasoning has been that Tahir becomes too much of a target when the fielding restrictions are in place, and that he has a tendency to leak runs. But that may be too simplistic an assessment of a player who has come to be among the shrewdest short-format cricketers around. Tahir has contained and attacked in the middle periods of matches for long enough for South Africa to trust him to do it earlier.

When he was used in that period, against West Indies, Tahir was effective, leaving South Africa to wonder what could have been had they unleashed him earlier in other matches.

Lack of discipline
The signs that the bowlers needed to tighten up were there during the Australia series, when South Africa lost the second match after failing to defend 204. They sent down eight wides and two no-balls then, and du Plessis asked for their basics to be better. In their tournament opener in India, South Africa gave away 26 extras against England - the most by any team in a T20 innings this year - and 20 of those were wides. They were better against Afghanistan and West Indies and conceded seven and ten in each of those games, but in a format where the margins are so small, it was still too many.

Too many two-in-ones
After searching for a two-in-one player for almost two years since Jacques Kallis' limited-overs retirement in 2014, South Africa were so delighted they found two that they insisted on playing Chris Morris and David Wiese together. To better balance a South African XI, there is actually only space for one of them, which would have created room for another batsman, something that was needed in Nagpur, or a front-line seamer. Kyle Abbott would have come in handy throughout the tournament, but he played only two of the first three games.

Injuries and other oddities
It seems unfair to pin this on South Africa because it is out of their control, but this factor could have been dealt with better. While there was nothing they could do about the hamstring niggle that kept JP Duminy out of the West Indies game, which was a setback but should not have been a tournament-ending one, they could have handled Dale Steyn's selection differently.

South Africa mysteriously shelved the idea of opening with AB de Villiers, thereby giving their most dangerous player less time at the crease © Getty Images

Steyn spent two months on the sidelines in a summer in which his only appearances were in two Tests in which he was injured. Steyn made his comeback from what he termed a broken shoulder against Australia and was adequate, without being overly impressive, but given that he was fit, South Africa wanted to take him to the tournament. But then, they only used him in the first match (in which he went wicketless and only bowled half his quota of overs), and then benched him, claiming they had to choose between him and an allrounder.

"It was between Dale and David Wiese. Chris Morris is an allrounder. We don't really compete him with someone else, so it was close today between Dale and David Wiese," du Plessis explained after the Nagpur match.

Wiese is also an allrounder, so the choice should rather have been between him and Morris, and then between Steyn and Kagiso Rabada for the spearhead role. Steyn should have won out on experience. Rabada, for all his excellence, is starting to show signs of overwork and could have sat out.

Even if South Africa needed Rabada to fulfil the transformation target, Aaron Phangiso's selection against West Indies would have taken care of the black-African requirement, and they could have included Farhaan Behardien in Rossouw's place, which would also have given them another bowling option.

Arguing that the transformation agenda has hindered South Africa is a naive assertion, especially this time. In South Africa's 15-man squad, they have six players of colour, including two black Africans and enough possible combinations to ensure they pick a balanced XI while also meeting their commitment to change.

In the end, South Africa tripped over themselves. And yes, you've read that before too. Until next time then...

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent