New Zealand v South Africa, 3rd T20, Auckland February 22, 2012

de Villiers keen to mix it up

South Africa perhaps experimented too much during the T20 series against New Zealand and would benefit from some stability as they prepare for the World T20

Three-quarters of the way through the deciding T20 against New Zealand, South Africa knew that only a collapse of typically South African-esque proportions would be able to stop their opposition from winning. But, for once, the choke was on the other team. Johan Botha and Marchant de Lange bowled a nerves-of-steel over each to the give South Africa the match, the series, the No. 2 spot on the ICC T20 rankings and most importantly, an affirmation that they could exert themselves in pressure situations.

"We all probably thought that the game was gone," Botha admitted. "But the guys fought until the end. I picked up a crucial wicket and kept us in the game and Marchant finished it brilliantly. We were very happy to finish it off and win in a really tight game tonight."

The immediate aftermath will be euphoric and it should be. This victory will not erase the times that South Africa have turned to pillars of salt under pressure but it will reassure them that other teams are capable of the same. It will also give them a major confidence boost about their ability to squeeze, scrap, create tension and turn seemingly lost causes into fighting ones.

The longer-term analysis will require more careful dissection. In all three matches, including the one they won, South Africa relied on a handful of performers such as JP Duminy, Richard Levi and Botha to put them into a dominant position. Captain de Villiers has long stressed the importance of a team effort and it's evident his men want to deliver on that but the unpredictable nature of the format, coupled with the ultra-flexibility of the South African XI has not allowed all of them to do that.

In three matches, South Africa used three different batsmen at No. 3. Only one of them, Colin Ingram, was not thrust into the role unexpectedly. Wayne Parnell and Albie Morkel, who did the job in the second and third match respectively, were both experiments that failed. Perhaps more noteworthy, is that both were needless experiments, forced even, because South Africa felt compelled to try something different. Both Parnell and Morkel came in to bat in the third over, with enough time left in the innings for the regular batting line-up to simply continue as usual.

There's no need to cast the batting order in stone but an outline of how it will operate can only work in the players' favour. The same can apply to the bowlers, who could benefit from a clearer idea of who will be called on when.

Similarly, in every match South Africa used a different pair to open the bowling. In Wellington, it was Albie Morkel and Lonwabo Tsotsobe. in Hamilton, Johan Botha and Tsotsobe and in Auckland, Robin Peterson and Morne Morkel took the new ball. Albie Morkel did not bowl at all in the second match, Justin Ontong was not given the ball once throughout the series and often the seamers, even when going well, did not bowl their full quota of overs.

Twenty-over cricket often presents an opportunity for the spinner to open the bowling and rotating bowlers is a strategy used to not allow batsmen to settle. South Africa's extreme use of this tactic breeds a sense of uncertainty rather than cunning and the outcomes are sometimes helter-skelter, which even de Villiers has admitted to.

Perhaps the new elasticity of their game plans is a response to one of the criticisms levelled at South African teams over the years of being too rigid and having an inability to adapt. So, in response, South Africa went the other way.

It started in the one-day series against Sri Lanka, with a musical chairs No. 4 slot. de Villiers, Duminy and Faf du Plessis took turns in the role and each of them performed well in it. The tactic was supposed to be that the best person for the situation would come in when needed.

What was never clear was who was considered most suitable to what situation except to say that South Africa would try to keep a left-right combination wherever possible, almost obsessively so. de Villiers is obviously regarded as the key man in an innings so if an anchor is needed, he is expected to lay one down and if quick runs must be scored, he should go out with skates on. The innings pivots around him and with him being South Africa's best batsman, it should. Du Plessis and Duminy are similar scoring players, with strike rates just over 83 and 84 respectively, occupy the crease in equally busy fashion and are both pacy between the wickets.

Exciting as it is not knowing who will walk out next, it leaves the line-up unsettled. There's no need to cast the batting order in stone but an outline of how it will operate most of the time can only work in the players' favour. It will allow for clear role identification, which is defined as more than simply being a team player or putting in 100% to win. The same can apply to the bowlers, who also do not need a concrete order of appearance but could benefit from a clearer idea of who will be called on when.

South Africa's fear is that the opposition will then have too much of an indication of what they are doing to do. Right now there are times when it seems even South Africa themselves don't know that. They have eight more T20s before the World T20 in September. Five of those will be against Zimbabwe, which can only have been organised to allow South Africa more room to experiment and test combinations.

It will be important for them realise that the bulk of that has been done. The ingredients have been mixed up as much as possible and now it's time for them to settle. If the matches against Zimbabwe can be used to achieve that, South Africa will give themselves their best chances at being properly prepared for a major trophy.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • ntokozo on February 23, 2012, 13:16 GMT

    Unfortunately, I have to say that this critical analysis is not only out of context (SA won the match having experimented; I don't see much use of criticising them), but also unnecessary. Commentators like Firdose tend to over-analyse the game. SA have always been criticised for being static (with good reason), but when they finally seem to be past those days and are looking more flexible, they are still criticised. This is AB's style of captaincy; get over it! I bet a million that SA would not have edged NZ out had a rigid skipper (like Smith) been operating. It's great to see flexibility working; it should be lauded in these instances (and criticised only when it doesn't work). Personally, I don't see anything wrong with shuffling AB, Du Plessis and JP provided that they are all performing (and know what is required of them in differing situations). I was really impressed with Botha today. He showed why he should always play when SA go with one spinner. Brilliant stuff from SA!

  • Hazel on February 23, 2012, 10:28 GMT

    It took New Zealand 20yrs to win the Rugby world cup (albeit thanks to a certain referee). So people SA will win a cricket world cup one day they have the talent no one can deny that. Can't wait for that day

  • Roo on February 23, 2012, 10:04 GMT

    While I like to see players getting opportunities, moving around the batting order too often does tend to destabilise the batting unit... Trying 2 batters for 1 postion is understandable, but 3 in a 3 game series?... Shows more uncertainty than planning... Bowling is different as conditions change so some pitches may suit who uses the new balls first & also if the opposition change their openers - L or R handers, etc...

  • Mark on February 23, 2012, 9:41 GMT

    Some good points. However, if either Parnell or Morkel had scored a decent amount of runs at numbers 3, you would probably be praising the clever move. In cricket term if as risk works- the captain is brilliant. If the move fails, he is an idiot. Very think line. T20 cricket is fast and given that chances are taken, I guess in most games you will have certain outstanding performances. The issue here may be if it is the same players who are either always performing or not.

  • Sharjeel on February 23, 2012, 5:00 GMT

    Deviliers will be serving the nation by brining cup home at the end of the running year

  • Duncan on February 22, 2012, 20:43 GMT

    Firdose I generally agree with your analysis, but I think your thinking may be outdated by next year. "leaves the line-up unsettled" if you got a guy who superstitiously will only play at no5 well then leave him there, perhaps leave him out because he may be the very player who is spooked by having to come in in the penultimate over and get 6 an over?

  • kiran on February 22, 2012, 20:38 GMT

    I disagree...different Coaches have different methods of getting the best out of the squad, If Gary's tenure with India is any indication of what his coaching style is, it is that he wants his middle order to be flexible and that anybody in the middle order can go in any position. Few coaches want their team to have fixed lineups saying that it would let the guys know about their roles...but i think this worked with India and there is a reason why they should try here too...In the WC SA is blamed of the "soft" middle order and their inexperience and all that jazz, Now they are trying to make sure that all the middle order batsmen are ready for the job at any time...Albie seldom gets time in the middle to build an innings and give his best shot, may be they wanted to see how he goes with it, provided he gets some time in the middle. If things go wrong then AB can steady the ship but if AB comes early and gets out then the team is left in a tricky position. So lets wait

  • Markus on February 22, 2012, 20:20 GMT

    I don't agree with the writer and am fully supportive of having a flexible batting lineup. The writer argues that a more settled lineup will allow for clear role definition. However, playing the same batsman at nr 3 irrespective of whether the openers got a good or a bad start is exactly the opposite of role definition, because the same nr 3 batsman is asked to perform different roles in different matches depending on how the openers went. In contrast, saying that batsman X will always be sent in if the innings needs to be stabilised and batsman Y if quick runs are needed is the purest embodiment of role definition, irrespective of the batting position. And to argue that the Parnell/Morkel experiment failed because they didn't get runs is not a valid argument, since the regular nr 3 didn't get runs either. So one might argue that playing the regular nr 3 as the nr 3 is also an experiment that failed.

  • rohit on February 22, 2012, 16:55 GMT

    common man !!! give AB some tym..atleast he has done what no other saf captain has dared 2 do..experiment...let him take his tym..sure saf could do with some dynamics :) go ahead AB :)

  • rahul on February 22, 2012, 16:52 GMT


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