When you are born to Indian parents and grow up in the United States of America, the last thing you would expect is to become a South African cricket tragic – but so is the tale of Proteas fan and cricket writer Abhai Sawkar.
Abhai has written for South Africa based ‘Cricket Fanatics Magazine’ and ‘Emerging Cricket’ alongside his own blog ‘Bowled Through The Gate’, which includes interviews with New Zealand internationals Will Young and Kyle Jamieson alongside explosive South African all rounder Chloe Tryon.
With the Australian tour of South Africa due to start on August 31, I had a chat with Abhai about the upcoming series, the 2023 ICC Cricket World Cup and a few other topics.
Arnab: South Africa had a disappointing tour of Australia, which included a Super 12 exit in the T20 World Cup and a 2-0 Test series loss against Australia. What have been some of the major changes to the Proteas team since?
Abhai: Starting off with the T20I team, I think there were issues with both the balance of the playing XI as well as not being able to play all the best players. Instead of making Temba Bavuma the short format captain, it would’ve made more cricketing sense to put him in charge of the Test and ODI teams, and give Aiden Markram the T20I captaincy.
Temba Bavuma. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)
Bavuma’s a good player but in the past year and a half, he seemed like a fish out of water in T20Is. He had the tendency to go hard at everything early on, in spite of his ability to fluently play conventional shots. And I felt terrible for Reeza Hendricks, who did a tremendous job in the T20Is against England. He was in excellent touch but ended up a benchwarmer for the entire World Cup.
Sadly, Dwaine Pretorius missed out because of a hand injury. Since he was the incumbent allrounder in the side, his absence was always going to be costly. I’m not implying that he’s top-quality, but he was more than good enough to offer the balance the XI so badly needed.
Pretorius’ replacement in Wayne Parnell is a bowler with above-average batting ability, but that doesn’t necessarily make him a strong candidate to bat at #7. I’m not saying it’s his fault, but the relative lack of batting depth forced quick scoring players like Aidan Markram and David Miller to rein in their natural game. After beating a pretty solid Indian team in Perth, most would’ve thought that the Proteas’ confidence level would’ve been quite high. However, the bowling performance against the Netherlands was well below the mark.
Even a well-proven quick like Kagiso Rabada had a largely forgettable tournament. It’s good to know that some of the weaknesses have been fixed in the T20I side after the T20WC but there still is a long way to go.
Personally, I had close to zero expectations heading into the Test series against Australia. In fact, it was during the England series when the wheels began to come off. The batting unit had been underperforming for a while, and good results turned out to be a very effective distraction.
I don’t think the chokers narrative applies for the last WTC. You don’t win tournaments when the same handful of players do the majority of the heavy lifting. It has to be a collective team effort with everyone doing their share.
So the Proteas were, in fact, very fortunate to be in contention for that long. But the writing was always on the wall. Hardly to anyone’s surprise, these guys were looking so mentally and physically spent during the 2nd and 3rd Tests at the MCG and SCG. And the innings loss at the MCG pretty much sealed the fate.
As far as changes are concerned, I think appointing Shukri Conrad as the Test coach was an excellent and proactive move. And it was about time to put Bavuma in charge, as he was the best batter in this side for nearly two years, plus he has experience of winning trophies for the Lions (his domestic team).
Selectors often relied on domestically experienced players like Theunis de Bruyn, Sarel Erwee, and Khaya Zondo. But if you want my brutally honest opinion, it really didn’t seem like any of these guys were up to scratch for Test cricket.
Moreover, Conrad is very much in the loop when it comes to rising youngsters who could be Test hopefuls, since he used to coach the U19 side. Bavuma finally adding to his only Test century was so nice to see. The guy has tirelessly worked hard and I hope the 172 against the WI is a watershed knock for him. It’s also nice to see young domestic players get rewarded for their exploits.
Tony de Zorzi has been knocking on the door for a while and finally got game time against WI. It may have been an inconsequential series, but that’s the ideal juncture to provide exposure for players who will be in for the long haul.
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This might be a little controversial, but I feel the end of the previous WTC was the ideal time for Dean Elgar to round off his Test career. I wholeheartedly appreciate his commitment to the Test team, but his form was noticeably dwindling for a while. In addition, his captaincy was far from convincing throughout the WTC. But I’m happy to retract this statement should he make big scores in high-stakes encounters.
The ODI team has mostly remained the same but Janneman Malan has been switched out, with Bavuma now opening alongside Quinton De Kock. I feel like the ODI format is just right for Bavuma, since he often needs time to get set before he can free up. T20 cricket doesn’t give him that sort of leeway.
Quinton de Kock. (Photo by Steve Bell – ICC/ICC via Getty Images)
He scored an ODI ton against England in January, and two months later made his personal best of 144 against the Windies. Clearly he’s gone from strength to strength in this format, and he’s been scoring at better than a run a ball, too.
Arnab: Pat Cummins is the first Australian Test captain to win a Test series at home against South Africa in over 15 years. What have you made of Australia under Cummins as a Test team?
Abhai: I believe Pat Cummins is a very skilful leader. While his nomination for Test captaincy seemed a bit questionable since fast bowlers are more injury susceptible compared to other roles, he’s overseen plenty of progress in a relatively shorter interval of time. The series win in Pakistan was particularly impressive, especially given that the surfaces were very batting-friendly throughout all 3 games.
The 3rd Test at Lahore stood out since it was an all-round masterclass, and Cummins bagged a total of 8 wickets in that game with a first innings 5 wicket haul which led to Australia winning their first Test series in the subcontinent in over a decade.
Arnab: Australia will be touring South Africa soon for a white ball series. We’ve seen South Africa adopt an ultra aggressive mentality amongst their batters in white ball cricket since the beginning of this calendar year. Do you expect that to continue against the Aussies?
Abhai: There’s been a long standing discussion on trying to ‘revolutionise’ the brand of cricket the Proteas play. I think with the recent ODI series there’s been some progress. Bavuma has been able to find another gear when opening the batting, and Heinrich Klaasen has turned a corner as well with his attacking approach and brilliant spin-hitting skills.
The Aussie bowling attack will certainly be a bigger challenge for the Proteas batters. There’s absolutely no question there. But looking at how things have gradually started to fall in place, I expect SA to continue with a similar modus operandi. After all, you need to have a wide range of shots and know when to employ what kind of approach, since cricket is very much a conditions-oriented game.
I’m hoping there are more chances for SA to chase instead of batting first. Lately, the bowlers have been frequently winning games for the Proteas but that can be subject to change going forward.
Arnab: Australia have named their squads for the tour of South Africa. Aaron Hardie, Tanveer Sangha, Matt Short and Spencer Johnson are set to earn their first Australia caps. What have you made of the Australian squads for the tour?
One immediate takeaway is the fact that some of the top performers in the BBL have been rewarded with a national callup. I haven’t had much of a chance to watch the BBL due to timing conflicts, but I have seen the highlights from time to time. Aaron Hardie was a little unfortunate not to make it to the WTC Final or the Ashes squad, but here comes a chance for him to make a mark when the stakes are lower.
It’s the ideal situation for some of these promising new guys, so they can ease their way into the demands that international cricket will present.
Matt Short. (Photo by Mark Brake/Getty Images)
Spencer Johnson will be very exciting to watch. He was absolutely unreal for the Oval Invincibles during the beginning of the Hundred – 3 wickets for 1 run in 20 deliveries. That’s on par with some of the best bowling performances ever in this format.
Tanveer Sangha hasn’t played any cricket in a year due to a stress fracture, but he stands a good chance to become Adam Zampa’s understudy in the short formats. And of course, Matt Short has been tremendous in the previous BBL and in the Minor League, so he’s coming into these games with quite a lot of momentum. It’s a solid mix of experienced and new players.
In any case, Australia on South African shores are always a formidable side, regardless of what format it may be.
Arnab: The 2023 ICC World Cup is less than two months away from starting. Who are your favourites, dark horse, and an unknown player to watch out for?
Abhai: My favourites for the competition are defending champions England and hosts India. I have chosen three dark horses – South Africa, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
As for the unknown package, there are multiple contenders but as of late I think Usama Mir from Pakistan could be someone to watch out for. He’s a skilful leg spinner but he can also hit a long ball down the order. I wouldn’t call him an allrounder but he’s a very useful cricketer. He’s played a handful of ODIs this year, with some of his good performances going under the radar. In fact, a few days ago he made a very impactful cameo of 32 from 14 in the Hundred for the Manchester Originals. Then he backed it up with 2/27 in his 20 deliveries. So he’s been taking advantage of the game time coming his way.