“If Leonardo DiCaprio can win the Oscar, then South Africa surely can win the World Cup”. Or so went the saying after the Hollywood A-lister finally won the one award that had been eluding him throughout his career.
The World T20 is already in final stages, having boiled down to its last three games. South Africa have not had the best of record when it comes to ICC events, and the sixth edition of ICC’s marquee T20 event hardly turned out to be any better.
If South Africa were heartbroken after crashing out of the 50-over World Cup semi-final last year, they ought to hang their heads in shame after their performance in the World T20 in which they were counted as favourites for the final four alongside teams such as India, Australia and West Indies.
While South Africa managed to end their miserable campaign with a massive eight-wicket win over Sri Lanka at the Feroz Shah Kotla in Delhi, it does mask the glaring inconsistencies that the Proteas displayed in the previous three games that they played in the Super 10 stage.
It is not as if the team lacked in talent. A side that featured in every expert’s list of favourites and boasted of an explosive batting line-up with the likes of Hashim Amla, Quinton de Kock, AB de Villiers among its ranks and world-class bowlers such Dale Steyn, Imran Tahir and Kagiso Rabada, failed to deliver when it mattered the most.
While there are a plenty of reasons for the Proteas’ miseries, their bowling at the ‘death’ is arguably their biggest bane.
Teams such as New Zealand, India and England have managed to pull off victories from the jaws of defeat with perfect tactics, while the lack of it played a major role in South Africa’s defeats to both England and West Indies in the tournament.
Ahead of the tournament, former Proteas medium-pacer and current South African bowling coach Charl Langeveldt had expressed happiness over his side’s death bowling preparation, even though South Africa failed to defend a 200-plus total against Australia in a recent bilateral T20I series.
“We try and encourage the guys to think out of the box sometimes. Maybe bowl a wide yorker or a wide slower ball. You don't want to go into the hitting zones in India, where the straight boundaries are a lot shorter,” Langeveldt was quoted, as saying in ESPNCricinfo.
Unfortunately for him, none of that was on display during South Africa’s defeats. Let us analyse the final few overs of the Proteas’ matches against England and West Indies.
If Amla, De Kock and JP Duminy hammered the likes of Reece Topley and Chris Jordan out of the park with their clean hitting, they were undone by Rabada and Steyn. England were under pressure when Jos Buttler was stumped for 21, with Eoin Morgan’s men needing 42 off the last four overs with five wickets in hand. While Root looked unstoppable on the day, some attacking bowling could still have contributed to the South African cause.
David Wiese and Chris Morris conceded 31 runs off the next two overs, pretty much sealing the deal in England’s favour. Rabada went on to concede a couple of boundaries to Ali after getting rid of Root, and even though there was a bit of drama in the final over with a couple of quick dismissals, a calm Moeen Ali ensured England managed to pull off one of the greatest chases across formats in international cricket.
After a 37-run win over a spirited Afghanistan (in which Wiese was once again taken to the cleaners), South Africa had to beat the West Indies — a side they had bullied consistently in recent times — by hook or by crook. A spectacular batting collapse nearly knocked them out of the game (with South Africa getting reduced to 47 for five in the ninth over).
However, a rescue partnership between De Kock and Wiese, as well as regular fall of West Indian wickets, including two off consecutive deliveries by Tahir, helped bring them back in the game. Morris got hit for a couple of boundaries by Samuels in the 19th over, but managed to make a comeback by getting rid of the latter.
Rabada, a front-runner to being South Africa’s first-choice death bowler, got hit for a massive six over mid-wicket by Carlos Brathwaite — off a length ball. As if that was not enough, he went on to concede a wide off the next delivery, a cardinal sin in such a stage of a match. As Brathwaite hit the winning runs, South Africa’s goose in the ongoing campaign was pretty much cooked.
It is not the first time that poor bowling in the death overs has contributed to South Africa’s loss. Grant Elliott smashed Steyn for a six over the cow corner off a length ball as New Zealand gave South Africa one of their biggest heartbreaks at the Eden Park in the World Cup semi-final last year.
Though the Proteas have sporadically got this art right since then, as was seen in the epic final-over battle between MS Dhoni and Rabada in Kanpur in October last year, they still have a long way to go.
Now that the South Africans are free for a few days, they might want to pore over the videos of England’s Ben Stokes, Chris Jordan or New Zealand pacer Mitchell McClenaghan to figure out how their clever variations helped their sides dry the runs up in the last couple of overs.
Stokes and Jordan’s overs in the final stages of the Sri Lankan innings were crucial to England sealing a 10-run win. McClenaghan’s incredible bowling against Australia in Dharamsala, especially in the 19th over, helped the Black Caps edge their Trans-Tasman rivals out by a mere nine runs.
To sum it up, South Africa’s absence of variations in the last four overs in T20Is, as well as the lack of yorkers, has resulted in them leaking runs massively by becoming too predictable. Whether the bowlers are not confident enough or have been instructed to do so remains to be established. The other big question is the development of the ideal death bowler. Rabada has shown potential, as has Abbott. Steyn’s impact in this regard, as well as in limited overs cricket, seems to be fading with each passing day.
DiCaprio may have won an Academy Award after years of hard work, but the South Africans will have to put in a lot more effort if they are to break the jinx in ICC tournaments. Maybe bowling in the death overs might be an ideal place for them to begin with.