World T20 2014 March 20, 2014

South Africa must fill the gaps

South Africa's captain and strike bowler have dodgy hamstrings, which is hardly ideal preparation for the opening match of the World T20 and it will test their bench strength

When worker bees fill honeycomb with nectar to turn into the delicious golden syrup we enjoy on everything from yoghurt to bread, they do it systematically. They do not leave any gaps in the hexagonal holes because that would be wasteful and maybe even weaken the structure. For a few months now, that is what South Africa's have had to do.

Since the Champions Trophy last June, they have been filling gaps and at the World T20, they have two more. Faf du Plessis and Dale Steyn are both nursing hamstring injuries, they may not feature in the opening match against Sri Lanka and, with the quick turnaround between games, their availability for the rest of the tournament may also be in doubt. Replacements are unlikely to be called up just yet, because South Africa will want to hold onto the possibility the pair will return when it matters so others need to step into their shoes.

South Africa need a leader, a batsman and a bowler, who are dependable enough not to dilute the strength of their team, and all of them have to come from within the squad in Bangladesh.

At least, they have the first of those covered. AB de Villiers is the automatic replacement for du Plessis as captain. He is the current ODI leader and led this T20 side until 14 months ago. He is also the only member of the group experienced enough and willing to skipper. Hashim Amla, the other option, has made clear his aversion to captaincy.

De Villiers may also have to occupy du Plessis' No.3 spot with the only spare batsman in the squad, Farhaan Behardien, coming in lower down. Behardien does not seem an obvious du Plessis replacement. He has limited game-time in national colours, a modest record and not much recent exposure on the international stage.

Apart from a T20 against Australia in which he neither batted nor bowled last week, Behardien previously turned out for South Africa in their forgettable ODI series in Sri Lanka where he was the weakest link. Behardien scored three runs in three matches and looked at sea against spin. It was a performance that haunted him, especially because he was dropped shortly afterwards.

"The last time I was in the subcontinent was a tough tour for me," Behardien admitted. "I've laid a few demons to rest." Behardien went back to work in domestic cricket and finished as the sixth-highest run-scorer in South Africa's domestic one-day cup with 362 runs from 12 games at 51.71 which included a century and two fifties. He captained the side when Henry Davids was unavailable and regained confidence, but not his national place with any certainty.

In the match against Australia, Behardien was picked because de Villiers was being rested. Rain curtailed the match to a seven-over shootout and Behardien did not feature at all. In the warm-up against Bangladesh A, he was selected because of du Plessis' injury. He walked into bat with South Africa 38 for 4 and saw an opportunity. He shared a 49-run stand with JP Duminy to stop the wobble and top-scored with 36 to prove he is capable of filling in.

"I was nervous out there," he said. "At times you can feel alone out there. You're alone with your thoughts and you can think stupid things. Flashbacks to Sri Lanka in June last year came back to me. It was a tough period in my career but it's a journey."

The most important thing Behardien has learnt along the way is that he, and the rest of the team, have to be able to overcome their own anxieties. "To unload pressure is vital to us as a unit," he said.

Two people who know that are Lonwabo Tsotsobe and Morne Morkel who will be the bowlers who have to compensate for Steyn's absence. Both are certain starters so one of Wayne Parnell or Beuran Hendricks will have be included in the XI as well.

They have both done it before, Morkel at Test level, Tsotsobe in the Champions Trophy. Steyn played only of South Africa's matches at the tournament last June, and Morkel was also ruled out, leaving Tsotsobe to lead the attack. He bowled more overs than any other seamer and picked up key wickets in the victory over Pakistan, which kept South Africa in the competition.

After a battle with fitness which almost ruled Tsotsobe out of tour to Sri Lanka he returned with a renewed work-ethic. Better results came. Tsotsobe equalled his career-best figures of 4 for 22 in his comeback match and ended the series with an average of 20.33. He has understood what it takes to adapt to conditions that are different to what he is used to at home.

"When you come to the subcontinent people think it's a spinner's paradise but batsmen play spinners very well now and often you find it's the fast bowlers who pick up most of the wickets," Tsotsobe said.

That is what happened in South Africa's second warm-up match against Pakistan where Tsotsobe, Hendricks and Parnell picked up two apiece. South Africa skittled Pakistan for 71 in that match and Tsotsobe thinks they can do more of the same if they continue to use variation well.

"You need to practice everything - yorkers, slower ball bouncers, slower balls, full tosses if you can, or even beamers," he said. "As a bowler you need to think how you want to get batsmen off strike. You have to execute very well. You have to be a very good competitor to play this game."

Something no one will deny is that South Africa are an outfit studded with good competitors. Even when their names are not instantly recognisable, their players are always up for a fight. They were in the Champions Trophy until the dreaded knockout, they were in the Test series against Australia when Steyn was also injured.

They are tireless worker bees, filling the gaps and carrying on. What has happened to them along the way is what happens to all workers bees: they don't become queen; the ruler. Behardien thinks they can change that this time. "We're perceived as not playing the conditions well in the subcontinent but there's no reason why we can't lift the trophy," he said. "We've got to walk the walk now. The talking is done."

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Bernard on March 21, 2014, 15:07 GMT

    Correction. Sri Lanka the best win loss ratio, followed by Pakistan and South Africa. Apologise for that.

  • Bernard on March 21, 2014, 15:02 GMT

    @yuvi_gladiator. Another misconstrued argument: "honestly SA has got nothing meaningful to show off in subcontinent or t20's in general".

    To burst your bubble:

    South Africa won 8 of 12 games in Asia (4 in Sri Lanka and 4 in the UAE). All, except 2 games were against subcontinent teams. Clearly they have no idea how to play in Asia, right?

    South Africa has won 39 of their 65 T20 games. Now that is a meaningless general T20 record, hey?

    South Africa has the second best win loss ratio in T20's after Pakistan, with Australia and and Sri Lanka 4th. It is obvious South Africa has no idea how to play T20 cricket, yes?

    I guess South Africa does not know what it takes to win a T20 or how to play in Asia, am I right?

  • Bernard on March 21, 2014, 14:32 GMT

    @GermanPlayer: "Other than AB at the moment, I cannot name a single player who seems mentally capable of fighting against the odds."

    Right! Faf obviously has shown he has none of that, as well as Duminy and Steyn? These three players are fighters. Clearly you are to wise to see that.

  • Jay on March 21, 2014, 10:31 GMT

    Why can't we get a decent bunch of guys who are mentally strong enough to play in big tournaments? We have quality players, no doubt, but how many of them have proven themselves to perform under pressure? Other than AB at the moment, I cannot name a single player who seems mentally capable of fighting against the odds. To me it seems history will repeat itself. SA will look good until the knockout game comes where the opposition will go all out on attack and SA will either keep gifting wickets or give away runs at speed of light.

    Why can't we follow Lehmann's model where he picked those players for the return Ashes whom he thought were mentally strong...why go for big names when they have never done much?

  • Jay on March 21, 2014, 10:25 GMT

    @Hildon As far as cricinfo's voting is concerned, it is hard to follow merit. Every supporter thinks his team has a chance to win and the Indians are no exception. With over 1250 million people living in India and 200+ million in Pakistan, it is expected that they will get a larger number of votes. Sri Lanka's population is not big enough which is why they are at 6%.

    Also, I believe Srilanka has choked more often than SA in the last 10 years. All Worldcups show that fact. Two time finalists in a row and choking at the last hurdle in ODIs. And even though they have been a good team, they are nowhere near the No. 1 team. T20 rankings doesn't count because a team is not allowed to play more than 7 T20s in a year which is not enough for a good ranking system.

  • Satwant on March 21, 2014, 10:07 GMT

    @line.and.length there is difference between playing in australia and the subcontinent. honestly SA has got nothing meaningful to show off in subcontinent or t20's in general. any team can win on there day in T20's and thats true even for all teams including bangladesh but without a single quality spinner it would be really hard for SA to go all the way. SL start clear favorites for this game

  • ESPN on March 21, 2014, 10:02 GMT

    Tsotsobe has good record against SL! SL struggle against left arm quicks!

  • rod on March 21, 2014, 9:20 GMT

    Seriously, no disrespect to saffa supporters, but talk about the cupboards being bare, when they toured oz a couple of years ago we hardly had half our battalion of bowlers available and we still almost won that series

  • Dummy4 on March 21, 2014, 9:12 GMT

    Most of the people who proclaim their comments in Crickinfo apparently do not give due praise to Sri Lanka that they deserve. This happens even with the live media commentators too. In spite SL being able to retain the No.1 position in world ranking nearly for 11 consecutive months, runners-up and finalist in many world cups, maintaining consistency than any other team, SL's praiseworthiness is not considered by many people who publish their comments. This is clearly evident in voting for predicting the T20 world cup winning team. Winning prediction for SL remains only at 6% despite all above achievements. This occurs because many are bias in sending their comments and do not take "merit" as the criteria to praise a team but based on the size, power, and population of the country. This has stood as a "blessing in disguise" for SL in many occasions. In most of their world cup winning or runners-up occasions hardly anyone predicted them as winners but they meekly progressed step by step

  • saumitra on March 21, 2014, 8:08 GMT

    Might be just a psychological ploy by SA management especially regarding Steyn, who might get included in the last minute than SL will have their hands full

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