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March 27, 2014
So this is how South Africa do not want their batting line-up to operate. After the New Zealand game, in which they seemed to settle into their strategy of starting slowly, setting themselves up and then speeding up, South Africa took several steps backward against Netherlands. They started in a hurry, shuffled things around, were strangled and almost went up in smoke as a result.
The showing left Russell Domingo steaming. "Our thinking during the innings hasn't been where it needs to be," he said. "There were some poor dismissals and some poor thinking which set us back big time today."
Although Faf du Plessis said net run-rate would not enter South Africa's minds ahead of winning the match, it was evident that it had. Hashim Amla smashed more runs off Michael Swart's second over than he has done in any over in T20 cricket in the past. Whether he was motivated by criticism over his strike rate, the loss of his opening partner early (which is when he has scored the bulk of his runs in domestic T20), the team cause or simply the opportunity to do so is anyone's guess but Amla did what was required of him when the situation demanded it.
"In our domestic T20s, Hashim had the second best strike rate of all players in South Africa," Domingo said. "His strike rate for me is not a major concern. He is a quality player. He is always going to find the gaps and the boundaries when it's his day. So we are pretty happy with how he hit the ball today."
What happened after that would not have made Domingo happy at all. Faf du Plessis and AB de Villiers played careless shots in an attempt to go big and put South Africa on a path of implosion. Neither have shown much responsibility with the bat in this format for a while. Du Plessis, who suffered patchy form stretching back to last year's Champions Trophy that saw him dropped from South Africa's ODI squad, has not crossed 30 in six innings; de Villiers hasn't breached that mark in nine innings.
Between them, du Plessis and de Villiers are supposed to be the spokes on which the South African batting wheels turn. Instead, they're getting the side stuck in the mud more often than not and leaving it to the players either side of them to make amends. They, and de Villiers in particular, may be playing out of character because of the continued shifting of their roles which hasn't given them enough time to establish themselves in a position.
Du Plessis wants to bat higher up but by doing so keeps de Villiers too low down for him to make the impact South Africa want. And if it isn't enough that the roles of these two yo-yo, South Africa can't even decide on a middle-order combination they will stick to, a problem that has been with them since Gary Kirsten introduced the floating batting line-up. JP Duminy, who is in form and was their top-scorer in the previous two matches, has had success at No.5 but South Africa opted to promote Albie Morkel ahead of him.
There is an argument to be made for giving Morkel time in the middle, mostly because he has not had much, but to do it in a major tournament illustrates South Africa have got the timing of their experimentation wrong. Morkel should have been picked for the umpteen matches they played in the lead-up to the tournament. To do it here, in a match they needed to win big, not only highlights how lightly they regarded their opposition but also how much homework they have not done.
Domingo justified the decision even though it did not pay off and accepted he would be criticised no matter which way he went. "If we stick with the same line-up, people say we do the same things over and over; if we change it, people say we change it too much," he said. "Albie Morkel is a player who goes in in with the intention to try and take it on from ball one and JP needs a bit of time to get started, which is why we sent Albie in. It looked like a bad decision because AB got out at the wrong time but the strategy was for AB to try and hold it together for us and Albie to try and take it on with batting still to come. It didn't work out for us."
Because it did not work South Africa could find themselves on the wrong end of a net run-rate calculation and may look back on the Netherlands match as the game where they got it wrong. Domingo already hinted as much. "The danger of playing sides like Holland," he said, "is that you try and do things that you maybe shouldn't have or try and take on players who you wouldn't have taken on if you are playing so-called established sides."
South Africa fell into a complacency trap of sorts but there was a positive they could take out of it. Beating Netherlands in such tense fashion made it the second game in succession in which pressure did not get the better of them. Like the approach to the batting-line up, Domingo accepted there were pros and cons to winning in such close circumstances but he could do nothing but hope the former outweigh the latter.
"We are a strange cricket nation. If we win two or three games comfortably, people are accused of peaking at the wrong time, and if we win two close games, people say we are playing badly," he said. "We can take a lot of positives out of the way we dealt with the pressure in these two tight games and we can fall back on those experiences when we get into tight games as the competition progresses." If, some will argue, their batting line-up allows them to get that far.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondentFeeds: Firdose Moonda
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