No side has failed to live up to expectations at the Cricket World Cup more consistently than South Africa, and it looks as if the Proteas are in for yet another tournament in which they don’t make the final.
Faf du Plessis (c), Aiden Markram, Quinton de Kock (wk), Hashim Amla, Rassie van der Dussen, David Miller, Andile Phehlukwayo, JP Duminy, Dwaine Pretorius, Dale Steyn, Kagiso Rabada, Lungi Ngidi, Chris Morris, Imran Tahir, Tabraiz Shamsi.
There’s plenty of proven talent in South Africa’s 15-man squad. Seven players, including current skipper Faf du Plessis, were part of the 2015 tournament which ended in that incredible semi-final loss to New Zealand, and some of the new faces – Kagiso Rabada, for example – are bonafide international stars.
The only question prior to the squad announcement was whether Hashim Amla or Reeza Hendricks would be included, and the selectors rightly decided to give the more experienced Amla the nod. Anrich Nortje was originally in the squad, but a fractured thumb saw him ruled out and replaced by Chris Morris.
Bowling. Hardly a surprise given which side we’re talking about, is it?
With Dale Steyn, Kagiso Rabada and Lungi Ngidi, the Proteas have a fearsome first-string pace trio. Everyone knows Steyn and Rabada’s quality, but having Ngidi, who averages 21 and has a strike rate of 24 in ODI cricket, as the third paceman adds a depth to the attack which few other nations have.
Unusually for a South African side, their best bowler heading into this tournament might be a spinner. 40-year-old Imran Tahir has been enjoying a superb last 12 months in one-day cricket, snaring 23 wickets at an average of 20 and a strike rate of 29.
His miserly economy rate – his overs have cost fewer than 4.5 runs over the past year – gives du Plessis a wonderfully reliable option through the middle overs and at the death.
On top of the four front-liners, Andile Phehlukwayo and Morris are both good bowling all-rounders, and JP Duminy a solid sixth bowling option.
Put simply, it’s an attack few sides in the world can match. But…
Injuries are casting a menacing shadow over the Proteas’ bowling stocks. At the time of writing, all three of Rabada (back), Steyn (shoulder) and Ngidi (side strain) have fitness clouds lingering over them.
If they’re all passed fit to play, they’ll come into the tournament with little cricket under their belts and no opportunity to get it early on against weaker sides; South Africa play the opening match of the World Cup against England before facing fellow finals contenders India and the West Indies in their third and fourth matches respectively.
Questions, too, surround the side’s batting. While Quinton de Kock is in fine form and du Plessis is a top-tier ODI batsman, this is not as imposing a line-up as the one South Africa fielded in 2015. Losing AB de Villiers has played no small part there, but their issues with the bat go beyond the former skipper’s retirement.
Hashim Amla only managed one half-century and 161 total runs at 32 in South Africa’s dominant series win over Sri Lanka earlier in the year, and Aiden Markram has essentially been picked on domestic, not international, form. While it’s hardly a weak batting order – any side with de Kock, du Plessis and Miller is capable of piling on the runs – there is a sense of vulnerability here which the Proteas didn’t have in 2015.
De Kock is one of the premier limited-overs openers in world cricket. The 26-year-old already has 14 ODI centuries to his name, and despite finding it more difficult to crack the ton in the past couple of years – he’s only made two hundreds in that time – he’s actually become more consistent, averaging over 50 in the past 24 months.
Only Faf du Plessis has scored more one-day runs for the Proteas than de Kock since the start of 2017, but batting up the top of the order, the keeper-batsman is able to impact the game more than his skipper.
If de Kock keeps up his strong form in England, it’ll put opposition attacks on the back foot from the get-go, take pressure off the likes of Amla and Markram, and lay the platform for South Africa’s strong middle order of du Plessis, Miller and Duminy to finish off innings well.
If not, the vulnerability we mentioned earlier will only be more pronounced.
South Africa are one of four or five sides capable of filling out the last two semi-final positions (assuming India and England will lock away spots one and two without much trouble) who are terribly hard to separate.
They have the bowling attack and batting talent to put together an excellent tournament, but fitness issues and one or two weaknesses in the top order – not to mention their terrible World Cup record – have us tipping them to finish two places away from the knockout stage.