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South Africa go into the World T20 without the massive expectations that usually follow them into a major event, and this might just work to their advantage
March 15, 2014
When South Africa's build up to the World T20 started last November, Faf du Plessis set his team a goal: get to No.1 in this format. He believed if South Africa occupied top spot, it would indicate they were a consistently successful side.
To summit the rankings, South Africa had to emerge victorious from all six of the matches that were scheduled. Only five took place and of those they won just two. That leaves them at No.4, just above the positions du Plessis said would render them out of contention because, "I don't expect us to compete in a tournament if we're ranked five or six."
What that means is South Africa arrive in Bangladesh under the radar. They are not among the favourites and nothing concrete is expected of them. "I suppose that's not a bad way to go there," Russell Domingo, South Africa's coach said. "The pressure of being an outright favourite won't be there."
South Africa's relationship with pressure is well documented so the absence of it in some form comes as a relief. But it has not left them completely. After stumbling to defeats against Australia in both the Test and T20 series, in a summer which has seen the twin retirements of Jacques Kallis and Graeme Smith (neither of whom were in the T20 plans,) there is pressure to prove South African cricket is not headed for a free-fall.
Following the six-wicket Centurion loss, Domingo faced his most hostile press engagement yet, precisely because of that fear. Hours before South Africa's departure to Bangladesh, it seemed they have more concerns than a team heading to a major tournament would want. It was only one game but they were outbatted, outbowled and outfielded by Australia at SuperSport Park and the spotlight was on the tactics as they go in search of a trophy.
The most obvious one is in the batting line-up. AB de Villiers, who is not keeping wicket in this format, was held back to bat in the No.5 position, considered too low for a shot-maker of his calibre. Critics including Kepler Wessels believe he should bat higher up, because he is South Africa's best batsman and should have maximum time at the crease but it seems the think-tank have a different strategy.
De Villiers, along with JP Duminy, David Miller and Albie Morkel, has been identified as a finisher and du Plessis blamed the top-order for not providing the platform for de Villiers and co. to perform. "If you want to win games, you can't have soft dismissals. To go three wickets down early like that, you're not giving your big hitters a good base to hit from," he said. "That's been our strength for a while, giving them that base, and that's when they are at their best."
One of those guilty of a soft dismissal was de Villiers himself. Du Plessis and Duminy also fell in frustration as they tried to accelerate the run-rate on a sluggish surface. As a result, they put their lower order and their bowling unit under undue pressure. Defending 128 is no easy task, especially not against what du Plessis called Australia's "powerhouse batting attack."
Still, for South Africa to fold in 15 overs indicated a lack of discipline and highlighted the size of gap left when neither Dale Steyn nor Morne Morkel is around. "It shows the impact of not having guys like Dale and Morne playing for you; two experienced players. They're an integral part of our side and not having them highlighted how important they are for South African cricket," Domingo admitted.
The pace pair did not play in any of the matches in the series because they were recovering from injuries. Steyn strained his right hamstring in the third Test and Morkel suffered from inflammation in his shoulder. Both are expected to be fit for South Africa's warm-up games in Bangladesh and are available for selection in the tournament.
That's good news for South Africa and it means they will not need to rely on a slew of left-arm seamers as they had done in the series against Australia. Their choice will be between Lonwabo Tsotsobe, Wayne Parnell and the newcomer Beuran Hendricks. Whoever gets the nod will have to bowl better than they did at SuperSport Park.
"On slow wickets, you want to be as straight as possible and not give too much width away," du Plessis explained. All three were guilty of offering too much room and with conditions expected to be even slower in Bangladesh, they will need to adjust quickly to avoid leaking runs like they did against Australia.
While South Africa's seamers did not get it right, their specialist spinner did. Imran Tahir was the most economical bowler at Centurion and had the most success in wicket terms. He showed control and used his googly with discretion, rather than all the time as he has been known to do.
"Imran bowled really well and that's a good sign for me. He is going to be a huge part of any success we have in Bangladesh so if he bowls well on a wicket like this, it's a really good sign going into those conditions," du Plessis said. Tahir was South Africa's second-highest wicket-taker at the 2011 World Cup and has made a strong return to form in limited-overs cricket over recent months.
South Africa's T20 side has made similar improvements. Unlike the outfit that went to the 2012 event, they no longer have a floating batting line-up in which there is uncertainty over the roles, they no longer have a misfiring opener in subcontinent conditions (Richard Levi) or a returnee who has not played the format for months (Kallis). They also no longer have the perfect build-up and so they no longer have the heightened expectation that has always followed them into major tournaments and Domingo hopes it will free them up to change their fortunes this time.
"T20 cricket is strange," Domingo said. "We lost a seven-over game that can go that way and then we got outplayed by a powerful Australian side. You want to improve every time and make a few changes here and there, but we've played good T20 cricket for the last year-and-a-bit and there's no need to make drastic changes.
"I don't think we have questions but I suppose there have been some good answers for us. You need a couple of players to play well, you need a few things to go your way, and you need to win some big moments."
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondentFeeds: Firdose Moonda
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