News Analysis

Series defeat raises South Africa doubts

Problems closing out innings with bat and ball have plagued South Africa in this series and have suggested the team is not as ready for the World Cup as they thought

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
Robin Peterson is bowled, Australia v South Africa, 4th ODI, Melbourne, November 21, 2014

South Africa's major concern rests with the firepower of their lower order  •  Getty Images

When South Africa planned their World Cup recce, they expected it to be an education in conditions and a sussing out of circumstances they may experience at the big event, not a stern examination of their own ability. They considered themselves on the brink of readiness for the competition, with an "almost finalised" squad and only the trimmings to take care of. But, the series loss to Australia - which has come with a game to spare - has left them thinking otherwise.
It has left question marks over South Africa's depth, their over-reliance on a handful of key personnel and, crucially, has caused them to question the game plan which has led to much of their recent success. "We probably didn't play smartly enough," Russell Domingo, the coach, admitted after his team lost by three wickets at the MCG. "They [Australia] were probably a lot cleverer than us at the end of innings. There's a lot of learning for us there, particularly in that phase of the game."
South Africa's finishing with both and bat and ball was exposed as far less clinical than Australia's. In the three matches in which South Africa lost, they conceded 104 for 3, 88 for 3 and 86 for 2 from the end of 40th over when they were bowling and posted 53 for 2, 24 for 4 and 51 for 4 at the same stage themselves. That points to a deficiency in death bowling and an absence of aggressive end-of-innings strokeplay - two problems which have plagued South Africa recently.
Both seem to require changes in personnel, which South Africa tried in the Melbourne game. They made four alterations which included a major reshuffle of the bowling attack. Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander were left out in favour of Kyle Abbott and Wayne Parnell, Imran Tahir was forced out through injury which allowed for Robin Peterson to play and South Africa added a fourth seamer, Ryan McLaren, in place of Rilee Rossouw.
"We've had a look at Dale and Vernon and Morne together as a unit, so we wanted to have a look at a different bowling unit and see what out other options are," Domingo explained.
The only two things South Africa may have gleaned from that is that Peterson can still do a job and that Abbott must be used at the death. His ability to bowl yorkers regularly exceeds that of McLaren and Parnell and he should earn more game time.
Generally, South Africa's attack function better than it did at the MCG so Domingo is not too concerned about that department, more so because he does not think an innings like Steven Smith's comes along all that often. "That's probably one of the better one-day hundreds that have been scored against us for a period of time," he said.
The issue for South Africa is their batting, which wilts unless Hashim Amla, Quinton de Kock, Faf du Plessis or AB de Villiers goes big and looks a different shade without JP Duminy to bulk up the middle order. De Kock (70 runs from four innings) and du Plessis (95 runs from four innings) have failed to make an impact on this series, leaving Amla and de Villiers with the bulk of the work but neither have been able to do it alone, together and even with David Miller's contributions - which were much-needed to reassure the selectors of his spot.
"Not having JP has been a very good exercise for us. We could look at our depth," Domingo said. But what South Africa saw will have worried them. Farhaan Behardien, despite doing "extremely well domestically," as Domingo put it and his bowling efforts, has not been able to step up as much as needed and Rossouw, though talented, needs a more regular run, which he is unlikely to get in the lead up to a World Cup.
A glance at South Africa's reserves shows that they are lacking for a power-hitter lower in the order, although Domingo is not sure they need an out-and-out bludgeoner as much as someone with longevity.
"It's not about firepower. We've got to make sure we have batsmen in at the end of the innings," he said. "AB probably got out one or two overs before we needed him to, and then there was a bit of indiscriminate batting. We needed to get a few more ones and twos at the end of our innings. Maybe we weren't clever enough with the bat at the end today, which probably cost us 20 to 30 runs."
South Africa will hope to have wisened up a touch by Sunday in Sydney, to lessen the margin of the defeat but even if they don't, Domingo insisted he would not call the trip a "setback". "It's a great reminder for us about how much work still lies ahead before we can seriously challenge for that competition in three months' time," he said
However, discovering weak spots before a World Cup is only handy if there is time and opportunity to fix them. South Africa have the former with over two-and-a-half months but not much of the latter. Next week, they return home for some domestic Twenty20 before their only incoming tour of the season, against West Indies. If that is not enough, then South Africa will have to hope Duminy's return from injury, which is expected around the same time as the West Indies series, will be.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent