Only a week ago, South African captain Faf du Plessis and coach Ottis Gibson had spoken about Vision 2019, a plan to bring home the World Cup, with a lot of passion and enthusiasm. The move to appoint Gibson was in itself part of their vision for the 2019 World Cup. The former England bowling coach had overseen a world title triumph (World T20 2012) in his time as the coach of West Indies and he was expected to bring a winning attitude and positive mindset to the outfit.
"Our mindset has changed. We have always been a team to focus on the now and when we are getting to a big tournament, that becomes your focus as well. This is the first time, we have taken a small step away from the now and a bigger step into the future," du Plessis had explained.
What this virtually meant is that the Proteas would focus more on the World Cup and wouldn't mind giving up series losses in the meantime. It also meant trying out new players, playing them in unfamiliar roles and getting them World Cup-ready. The South African cricket establishment hopes to have a group of close to 20-25 players who have earned game time and are potentially well-equipped to handle most conditions in a big tournament.
But the first two ODIs against India have once again highlighted some familiar issues that have pegged the South Africans back before. Ideally, a loss shouldn't affect them now, given that the bigger focus is on the 2019 World Cup. Du Plessis had clearly stated that they did not mind losing as long as they learnt well enough from the losses and equipped themselves better to handle a similar scenario in the World Cup.
The primary issue haunting them is that their support cast is just not good enough. There are the top four in the batting line-up - Hashim Amla, Quinton de Kock, du Plessis and AB de Villiers - and two fine bowlers in the form of Kagiso Rabada and Imran Tahir. These players make South Africa a formidable limited-overs outfit. But they still need the support of the others to put together a string of victories that is essential in tournaments.
Of course, there is a David Miller who can steal a game away from the opposition in no time or Morne Morkel who can send down a rip-roaring spell that puts the opposition on the back foot, but neither have done it consistently enough to elicit confidence.
Of the current lot, JP Duminy, Andile Phehlukwayo and Farhaan Behardien seem like extra baggages that South Africa seem to be wasting their time on.
Duminy, for instance, has played 19 ODIs since 2017, made zilch scores above 40 and averages a lowly 24.92. In fact, his last hundred came in the 2015 World Cup against Zimbabwe. Dig deeper and you will see that out of his four ODI hundreds, three are against Zimbabwe and one against the Netherlands.
Miller has a hundred and two half-centuries and has a decent average, but has profound issues against spin early on, and that once again came to the fore in this series against India. Aiden Markram is fairly new to the setup and has already been burdened with captaincy and an unfamiliar batting position and he too seems to have a weakness against spin which does not augur well for the Proteas.
Chris Morris, while promising much, lacks the consistency with the ball which South Africa so require from their fourth seamer. Phehlukwayo, on the other hand, does not possess the pace or the variations to be a successful limited-overs bowler and him being selected ahead of all-rounders like Dwaine Pretorius and Willem Mulder belies logic.
While South Africa's Test team selection has been much better, there is a clear step-motherly treatment to limited-overs cricket which has seen them ignore numerous talented players from their domestic tournaments. The Momentum One Day Cup has been a platform for youngsters to showcase their talents and while many have done that, only few have gained recognition.
A few like Jon-Jon Smuts, Gihahn Cloete and Pieter Malan have been the outstanding batsmen in the One Day Cup in the past few seasons. In fact, from the top 10 run-scorers of the 2016-17 One Day Cup season, only one – Markram – has made it to the national ODI squad. The numbers are no better this season with Heinrich Klaasen being the only uncapped player from the top run-getters' list to catch the selectors' eye.
This is particularly appalling considering that Khaya Zondo earned a call-up despite doing little of note and Duminy still finds a place inspite of his mediocre record. Somebody like Smuts has been a regular in the top-10 run getters' list in the One Day Cup and is a much better bowler than Duminy with his slow left-arm orthodox bowling fetching him 14 wickets in 12 games this season. Why the South African selectors keep sticking to the long tried and failed experiment of Duminy only they know.
Even in the bowling side, South Africa have little options after the settled group of Rabada, Tahir and Morkel. Morris and Phehlukwayo have not been consistent and with Kyle Abbott gone to Kolpak, and Dale Steyn's South Africa future uncertain due to recurring injuries, things do not look bright.
Lungi Ngidi is waiting in the wings and could come into contention for the next ODI, but South Africa still need quite a few others to push their case from domestic cricket. Dane Paterson couldn't quite grab his opportunity but there are some other promising bowlers in Beuran Hendricks and Sisanda Magala who could get a look in.
The over-reliance on too few players has been a major quandary for the Proteas and the first two ODIs against India exposed their vulnerabilities. The nine wicket loss at Centurion, after making their lowest total at home since readmission, showed that they need to address the underlying issues much better in order to be World Cup-ready.