During the third ODI, South Africa all-rounder Andile Phehlukwayo had shuffled across to cover his stumps. The ‘wrong’un quagmire’ ostensibly made his trigger movement exaggerated. Kuldeep Yadav expectedly spotted it. He bowled a chinaman and took the ball away from the left-hander. Phehlukwayo attempted a premeditated slog and top-edged the delivery to Virat Kohli at cover. Yadav broke into an impish smile. It wasn’t a smile of contempt. Rather, it was the satisfaction of a plan coming through without any resistance. Phehlukwayo is no mug with the bat, but he is no specialist either. Better batsmen than him in his side are caught in the wrist-spin web.
Even David Miller, an IPL biggie, has looked clueless at times against Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal. The two wrist-spinners have now collectively taken 21 wickets in three ODIs. But Aiden Markram and company have drastically let themselves down, the way they succumbed to spin, sometimes batting like novices. What is surprising is that South African batsmen, historically, are competent players of spinners, as testified by their success in the subcontinent. But without AB de Villiers and Faf du Plessis, their batting has become second-grade.
De Villiers’ ODI average against India is 51.80, du Plessis’s consistency is even better; 59.81. The South Africa captain scored a century in the first ODI at Durban before a finger injury sidelined him for up to six weeks. De Villiers, too, was ruled out of the first three matches due to a finger injury. Their absence, and also Hashim Amla’s lean patch, presented the next generation – the Markrams and the Zondos – an opportunity to assert themselves.
Their performance so far has made the fans apprehensive about South Africa’s future instead. Former South African great Barry Richards has a word of advice for the current batting line-up. “You should be watching (the ball) close enough to see the rotation of the seam,” he told The Indian Express. Some pinch followed: “With flat wickets and T20s, players just line the ball up and swing. If the ball seams or turns, most are at a loss.”
Boeta Dippenaar, the former South Africa batsman who played 107 ODIs and 38 Tests, besides scoring more than 12,000 first class runs, was forthright in his assessment. “Look, you can find a lot of mistakes, when a team is struggling. And the South Africa ODI team is struggling. So obviously they are low on confidence. It’s reflecting on their (feet) movements. It’s reflecting on their execution of shots. And it looks bad on TV at the moment. Because it looks like they don’t know which way the ball is turning,” Dippenaar told this paper. To their credit, Yadav and Chahal aren’t bowling the driving length, which has dried up the singles to long-on and long-off. The Indian spinners are forcing the Saffers to play high-risk horizontal bat shots. Dippenaar agrees. “Yes. I think because they are low on confidence and not sure which way the ball is spinning, they aren’t using their feet. And because they are stuck on their crease, the only option they feel they have is the horizontal shots.”
South Africa’s problem, however, is much more deep-rooted than on-field technical errors. Dippenaar questioned the structure and quality of domestic cricket.
“The fact that de Villiers and du Plessis are not there shows what a massive gap they have in the South African team from the previous generation to the next generation. I think our domestic cricket is not sufficient at this stage to prepare batsmen for higher level,” he observes.He reckons it’s high time CSA came up with a solution. “This is one of the aspects they (CSA) will have to really address. A lot of time, substandard performances at lower level are overlooked because the national team is doing well. And as the national team has done well over the last couple of years we haven’t taken notice of the dropping standards at the domestic level. And this has come full circle now.” On the other hand, the IPL offers India a platform to throw the youngsters in at the deep end expose them to international level. South Africa changed their domestic cricket structure about 14 years ago to make it franchise-based, rolling over the provincial pattern. Eleven provinces made way for six franchises. “Out of that (franchise-based) system, you had the likes of de Villiers, (Dale) Steyn and (Morne) Morkel. What happened subsequently. Obviously transformation was driven very hard in South Africa. And obviously everybody agreed there was a need for that, (although) I don’t always believe it allowed standards to be maintained,” Dippenaar observed, ruing the fact that ‘middle-class’ players – cricketers with excellent first-class careers, knocking on the national team’s door but don’t necessarily have top international level quality – have been disappearing.
“The ‘middle-class’ in a country is the foundation. It teaches the youngsters the ropes (of the game). Because of a lot of social issues in our country, that type of a player is destroyed. There’s no more place for somebody who has got experience but doesn’t play for South Africa, because we need to either make a place for transformation to happen or we need to make a place for a young exciting cricketer,” Dippenaar said. De Villiers is returning for the fourth ODI. He will bring in a positive mindset. He will use his feet and try to transfer the pressure on the Indian bowlers. A trickle-down effect to the dressing-room will make the last three matches of the series interesting.