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

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