Take one glance at the Durban scorecard and you would wonder how Sri Lanka chased down 304 in the final innings against a South African attack comprising Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander, Kagiso Rabada, Duanne Olivier and Keshav Maharaj. Glance through the fall of wickets and you are awed by the fact that Kusal Perera and the not-so-dodgy No. 11 Vishwa Fernando played out 15.5 overs for 78 runs to clinch the win, the latter facing just 28.4% of the deliveries as Perera hogged strike, struck brutally and savagely roasted the Proteas on the “piece of pudding” at Durban.
It can safely be said that South Africa lost to one man in that fourth innings run-chase. It was after all one of those knocks you only can sit back, savour and say, ‘well played’. The Proteas bowling attack, which boasts a strike rate of 41.5 at home since the start of 2018 – including a stunning 10 five-wicket hauls – faded in comparison to Perera’s herculean effort. Yet the advantage in the match was conceded when the hosts folded in the second innings, losing their last five wickets for 8 runs to a Sri Lankan attack sporting three bowlers who had a combined tally of just eight Tests. South Africa lost 18 of their 20 wickets to these three bowlers.
This points to a persistent issue in the batting line-up, one which has remained unaddressed and ignored as its failings have been covered up by a ruthless bowling attack.
South Africa’s batting average as a team in Tests since the beginning of 2018 is 25.91. With AB de Villiers in the side, it went up to 28.28 but without him, it sits at a petty 22.98 with just one batsman – Quinton de Kock – averaging over 40. Having de Villiers around seemed to calm the other batsmen’s nerves, with as many as three batsmen aside from de Villiers himself – Temba Bavuma (68), Dean Elgar (45) and Aiden Markram (44.28) – averaging over 40 post 2018. The whole team appears frenzied in de Villiers’ absence with the strike rate surging upwards but the average spiralling down.
The indications are clear. The team lacks a solid anchor in the middle order with the Superman intent on continuing his T20 expeditions. Hashim Amla’s hand-eye coordination is no longer at its beastly best and as a result that odd backlift from gully is coming back to haunt him. Faf du Plessis is prone to bouts of inconsistency while Bavuma seems to be forever stuck in the 40s – he now has 18 such scores in his career, of which just one was converted to a ton. Elgar’s ugly batting has been invaluable at times but like du Plessis, he hasn’t been consistent enough while the talented young Markram seems to be in a hurry to score (a strike rate of 63.2 since 2018), and as such inevitably nicks one of those odd wide balls.
The Proteas seem to be playing catch-up quite often with the bat after a top order collapse. In eight out of 25 innings since 2018, South Africa have found themselves three or more down for less than 50 runs. That is nearly once in three innings in which they suffer a top-order collapse. Twice in the Pakistan series – at Centurion (3/43) and Johannesburg (3/45) in the second innings – and in the first innings against Sri Lanka (3/17), South Africa lost their top order early. The tail has been no better with the average of batsmen at positions 8-11 a poor 11.8. The bottom three combined have been facing less than 20 balls in an innings on an average.
When Duanne Olivier became indispensable after the Pakistan series where he took 24 wickets in three Tests, South Africa avoided the difficult question of which seamer they would drop by leaving out a batsman and playing four pacers and a spinner in a five-man bowling attack.
The decision overlooked their recent brittleness with the bat. Vernon Philander at No 7 was quite handy in 2017, where he averaged 32.44 with the bat. But post 2018 that average has dipped to 20.11, and with a faltering batting line-up above him, Sri Lanka exploited the lower-order frailties.
With Philander batting at No 7 at Kingsmead, a ground where they have won just once in the last decade, they did not have the batting heft required. Du Plessis explained the loss in the simplest terms when he said: “We were 50 short in the first innings and about 30 to 50 in the second innings.”
This shortage of runs has been a clear problem yet no solution has been sought – instead the woes have been compounded by hopeful selection combinations like at Durban. A focus on fast bowlers in the Gibson era hasn’t helped either. Given that the absence of a genuine allrounder has created the imbalance, grooming someone like Willem Mulder is highly recommended given his promising future as a batting all-rounder.
Only one player has a positive average difference (batting – bowling average) with a minimum of 10 wickets for South Africa since the start of 2018 – Vernon Philander, whose incredible bowling average of 18.56 has helped him stay on the right side of the difference.
Making wholesale changes to the line-up isn’t South Africa’s style and it is unlikely that a knee-jerk reaction would see some of the batting guns go missing for the next Test, but the need to groom the next Amla, de Villiers and du Plessis is more prominent than ever. The likes of Theunis de Bruyn, Zubayr Hamza and Mulder, who are warming the bench, ought to be given more chances to play alongside and learn from experienced players like Amla and du Plessis before they hang up their boots.
Disturbingly, an Indian tour beckons shortly after the World Cup. The concern will be that the present lily-livered batting line-up is only going to provide fodder to the ruthless Indian spinners bred on the dust bowls in the sub-continent.
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