South Africa mull combination conundrum

Taming the Indian batting line-up requires picking up wickets and South Africa believe their best chance of doing that is by trusting in pace

Vernon Philander is likely to play his first ODI at the MCG and South Africa might opt for Kyle Abbott ahead of Imran Tahir  •  Getty Images

Vernon Philander is likely to play his first ODI at the MCG and South Africa might opt for Kyle Abbott ahead of Imran Tahir  •  Getty Images

South Africa will ponder leaving out a specialist spinner and relying on pace to stifle India's aggressive batting line-up. That will mean leaving out Imran Tahir and using one of the reserve quicks, Kyle Abbott or Wayne Parnell, in their starting XI in Melbourne on Sunday.
"The balance of the side is something we talk about quite a lot, depending on conditions and the make-up of the opposition. Against some sides we could play four frontline bowlers and two part-timers. The MCG seems to be a really good wicket for batting so we will assess our options," Russell Domingo, South Africa's coach, said at the team's first training session at the venue on Thursday.
Dale Steyn, who sat out the Wednesday practice with flu, returned to action and barring any further health concerns should lead the attack against India and will hope for a more profitable return than the 1 for 64 he managed against Zimbabwe. He will also hope for support from the other seamers, in particular Vernon Philander, who was the most economical in the tournament opener and will make a maiden appearance at the MCG.
Philander was left out of the team for the Melbourne ODI on South Africa's recce trip in November, after a show of 1 for 70 in 10 overs in Canberra. At that stage, South Africa were 1-2 down on the tour and could have squared the series and they opted for an attack which excluded Morne Morkel and Philander and included Abbott and Parnell. They lost that match and the next one to crash to a 1-4 series defeat, and left Australia unsure of what the best approach was at one of cricket's biggest arenas.
Abbott was the most economical bowler in Melbourne then with a return of 1 for 43, while Parnell and Steyn took two wickets each. Despite Philander missing out on gaining first-hand knowledge of the MCG, Domingo believes he could be the difference if conditions offer a little assistance.
"There seemed to be a little bit of bounce here last time. Vernon thrives on wickets that offer a little bit so hopefully there will be something in the wicket for him," Domingo said. "He is a hell of a good bowler when there is a something in the wicket for him - one of the guys that is most effective in world cricket when the wicket does offer something - so I'm hoping he can play a big role for us on Sunday."
Since July last year, when South Africa's World Cup preparations began, the team has played 24 matches across Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe, New Zealand, Australia and at home and Philander has featured in half of those. He claimed 23 wickets at 19.78, a bowling average better than Dale Steyn's 25.00 and Morne Morkel's 29.46. Although Philander's Test-match technique was thought to be unsuited for the 50-over game, he has proved otherwise and success at the MCG might end the debate.
Although, they may be sidelining Tahir at their peril, he has better numbers - 32 wickets at 21.96 from 18 matches - than both Parnell and Aboott and has been known to control the innings through their middle overs.
But if the choice is between the quicks, Parnell seems the statistically sound option with 19 wickets from 12 matches at 25.42 since July compared to Abbott's six from nine games at 54.33. But Abbott could benefit from the bounce Domingo has predicted against a line-up known to be uncomfortable against the short ball.
South Africa are not assuming anything, and have heaped praise on India's "match-winners," rather than isolate which weak link to try and break.
"We know Virat has been an outstanding player for India but they've also got Suresh Raina, Rohit Sharma, Ajinkya Rahane - they've got seriously good batting line-up," Domingo said. "It's not the South African style to target one player. We focus on them as a whole. We know they have some of the best players in the world. They've had a tough tour of Australia, but it's not the tour of Australia that is probably at the top of their list - the World Cup is their priority."
It is also South Africa's.
Although Domingo tried to downplay the importance of the India game - "We know there is always a lot of hype when India is in town. We are not seeing it as a high profile game. We are treating it in the same way as all the other games," - it is one of the fixtures which could decide pole position in Pool B and South Africa know it is crucial. "You'd rather come off a win against a big team in front of a big crowd than a loss."
At a tournament where four teams, including South Africa, have plundered over 100 runs from the last 10 overs in just eight matches, Domingo's think tank have identified the dividing line as being between India's batsmen and their bowlers. Now they just have to come up with the magic formula to ensure they are on the right side of that split come Sunday night.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent