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Despite having talented batsmen in their ODI batting line-up, South Africa have failed to produce match-winning performances in recent times
October 28, 2013
South Africa's roping in of their former coach Gary Kirsten to mentor their batsmen between the second and third ODIs against Pakistan might indicate there are some doubts within the team. From the outside, it would seem South Africa are in a state of some stress. Their coach Russell Domingo has only been in charge for three months and has already lost four ODIs and one Test. His Twenty20 series victory in Sri Lanka has almost faded from memory and questions have abounded on whether he feels he needs help.
However, think back to when Kirsten chose not to renew his contract and Domingo was appointed his successor. "It would be foolish of me not to use Gary in some capacity," Domingo had said. This is not a cry for assistance. Domingo is making good on those words and using his predecessor for planning, rather than panicking.
Developing limited-overs batsmen is South Africa's most pressing task, and that is the reason they have recalled Kirsten. The ODI line-up has managed only one total over 250 in their last nine matches - 305 against India during a losing cause in the Champions Trophy in England. During their recent tour of Sri Lanka, South Africa were dismissed under 180 twice.
They struggled to get going with an unsettled opening combination that could not provide the middle order with anything to build on, and they had batsmen whose techniques were exposed against spin. At least one of those will change with the return of Graeme Smith at the top. Smith was recovering from ankle surgery during the Sri Lanka series, but has since returned to full fitness.
South Africa would have hoped for Smith and Hashim Amla to add stability as openers, but Amla may be absent for the first few matches because he is still awaiting the birth of his second child. The good news is that Colin Ingram, who is on standby in case Amla does not make, is the leading run-scorer in the domestic one-day cup. He has scored four fifties in four matches and, alongside Smith, may strengthen South Africa considerably.
South Africa also have some consistency in their line-up. In Sri Lanka, Domingo did away with the floating batting order and installed a more permanent one. He put JP Duminy at No.3, AB de Villiers at No.4 and Faf du Plessis at No.5. Farhaan Behardien and David Miller were interchangeable at Nos. 6 and 7 but with Behardien dropped, Miller has the chance to cement his position.
One of South Africa's few impressive batsmen over the last three months, Miller has shown he can switch between big hitting and playing a steadying role in the middle order. He scored an unbeaten 56 in the Champions Trophy semi-final, after South Africa crashed to 80 for 8, to take them to 175 with Rory Kleinveldt. In the third ODI in Sri Lanka - the only game that South Africa won - he made an aggressive and unbeaten 85.
Miller comes into this series on the back of two half-centuries for Dolphins in the one-day cup and an attitude of enhanced maturity. "I've been working on getting myself in and giving myself time. Once I'm in the boundaries will come," he said. "In Sri Lanka, we lost a lot of wickets in clusters. We're going to have to take more responsibility as a batting unit."
Wayne Parnell, who made 129 opening the batting for Warriors against Lions two weeks ago, will provide another all-round option, with Ryan McLaren and Robin Peterson also adding depth. Under Kirsten's guidance, the batsmen will have no excuse for letting their bowlers down, as they have done over the past few months.
South Africa's attack, however, will be without Dale Steyn for the first two matches, but they coped impressively in his absence in Sri Lanka. Lonwabo Tsotsobe overcame fitness concerns to bowl with control and understanding of the pace and length needed on slow subcontinent tracks. They also included Imran Tahir after his impressive showing in the T20s in Sri Lanka and will hope the confidence he gained from his successful Test comeback translates into the other formats.
The squad has the resources to put on a decent showing in what South Africa are calling the start of their build-up to the 2015 World Cup. Recent history, however, has shown that they've lacked something in the limited-overs format. It may have been chutzpah, creativity, or just plain concentration. With expectations high and everything to prove, they have no choice but to move up a gear in this series.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondentFeeds: Firdose Moonda
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Stats highlights from the fourth ODI between India and West Indies in Dharamsala