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South Africa's embarrassment of glitches

The ODI series loss in India won't help the qualification process for 2023 World Cup and, more immediately, the mindset ahead of the T20 World Cup

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
South Africa head to the men's T20 World Cup in Australia with what seems like 99 problems, and the pitch ain't one of them.
They could have been playing in Melbourne or Mumbai, or even on the moon, and might still have batted with "one foot in India and one foot in Australia", as Makhaya Ntini put it on ESPNcricinfo's post-match programme, explaining the discombobulation that defined their efforts in the deciding ODI on Tuesday.
"You can't expect the players to be up for every single game," Mark Boucher, South Africa's outgoing head coach, said after the game. "That's when you've got to rely on your technical stuff and your mental stuff to pull you through, and we've been a little bit weak in both those departments. Today, especially."
Later in his press engagement, Boucher said "mental fatigue kicking in" - a worrying phrase at the start of a summer that includes a T20 World Cup, a Test tour of Australia, and the inaugural SA20. It also asks questions about what could be making South Africa's cricketers so tired, given that they don't play as much as many international sides.
Boucher offered a throwaway line about T20 leagues, and even though five of the current squad - David Miller, Quinton de Kock, Tabraiz Shamsi, Dwaine Pretorius and Heinrich Klaasen - played in the CPL and three others - Reeza Hendricks, Temba Bavuma and Bjorn Fortuin - were part of a Namibia Global T20, overworked players cannot be the real reason behind their blowout.
To be fair, there's some illness in the camp, with Bavuma, Shamsi and most recently Keshav Maharaj all forced to sit out of matches. Bavuma and Shamsi missed the last two; Maharaj led in Bavuma's absence and then had to miss the final one. All three are essential to South Africa's T20 World Cup plans, even if two of them are under extreme, perhaps exhausting, scrutiny.
Bavuma's strike rate in T20 cricket has long been a talking point, more so after he missed out on an SA20 contract. And he has only scored 11 runs in four innings on this India tour. With Reeza Hendricks in red-hot form, there's talk of whether the captain will drop himself, or be dropped, and that may be one of the things creating anxiety in the camp.
Boucher played it straight, as he has to, and acknowledged there is concern around Bavuma's form, but not his leadership.
"Temba will want to try and get some sort of form before a World Cup. We do still have two warm-up games and the conditions will suit his style of batting," Boucher said. "We'll try to get him back up and running again and get him into the nets and hopefully give him a knock or two before the World Cup starts and see where he is at. He is the captain and we treat him like that."
Shamsi doesn't seem to have the same level of support.
Although he was the No. 1-ranked T20I bowler not too long ago [and is still at No. 5], Boucher described Maharaj as South Africa's "No. 1 spinner", albeit "especially in the one-day format".
The reality is that in Australian conditions and on form, Maharaj is probably also ahead of Shamsi in T20Is, if only because Shamsi's recent performances have been erratic, while Maharaj has maintained consistency. Considering how long Shamsi waited for his chance during Imran Tahir's reign as the sole spinner and how quickly he has fallen behind Maharaj, it's understandable that Shamsi may not be in great spirits. He is known to be one of those that forms the life and soul of the change room, and if he is down, it can't help the team.
Then there's the elephant in the room: Boucher's imminent departure, to the IPL, which has necessitated his resignation from the South Africa job.
CSA has admitted it was taken by surprise by Boucher's decision and has no succession plan in place. The board is likely to appoint an interim coach for the Australia Tests - the last time that happened was when Enoch Nkwe took the team to India, where they lost, and CSA went into freefall afterwards - and then split the red- and white-ball roles for the future. Several insiders confirmed that in the little scouting CSA has done to replace Boucher so far, it has found no-one interested in taking the job.
Meanwhile, Boucher is leaving with a year left on his contract, which was due to expire after the 2023 ODI World Cup, a tournament South Africa are scrambling to get to, more so after their series defeat to India.
South Africa are in 11th place on the points table [the top seven teams and hosts India are guaranteed places at the tournament] and have matches left to play. In theory, they should feel confident of their chances. They only need to win three of their remaining five games [three against England, two versus Netherlands] to finish above West Indies in eighth place. But that's not all. Even if they manage that minimum requirement, Sri Lanka and Ireland can catch them, but they both have tough assignments. Sri Lanka have six matches; three each against Afghanistan, who have won ten of their 12 so far, and New Zealand, who have 11 wins from 15. To challenge for eighth place, Sri Lanka have to win three, and if they do, South Africa will need one more win than Sri Lanka. Ireland host Bangladesh next May and need to win all three matches to finish in the top eight. In that case, South Africa will also need four wins.
On paper, it sounds doable but on the field, it may not be.
Apart from the obvious challenge that England, in particular, will pose, that series is sandwiched between the group stage and knockouts of the SA20. That could work in South Africa's favour, if players are in form, or against them, if the reverse is true. It will also put the spotlight on Bavuma, who won't be playing in the SA20, and doubtless that will throw up many of the same questions it has this time.
And there's the Netherlands matches, which many will view as easy for South Africa to get points, but they are scheduled at the end of March, when the first-choice players will be at the IPL. So South Africa can't consider the matches already won.
"It's not ideal," Boucher said, even though that won't be his problem. "The reason why we are in this situation is because we haven't always had continuity within our one-day team and there's been various reasons - players leaving to come to IPL, and Covid-19. There has been a bit of inconsistency. But, the guys will know what's required. They've got to win those games and if we don't we just have to accept the fact that we will have to go and qualify for the World Cup."
Ultimately, that's what it may come down to and it's not the end of the world. A qualification tournament in Zimbabwe in June, where South Africa are very likely to be among the two best sides, shouldn't be anything more than a minor inconvenience. But it isn't. It's embarrassing. And South African cricket has already been through too many of those over the last three years to stomach another one.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent