The first hurdle was cleared adequately by the Proteas. Zimbabwe showed some real grit all the way through but history will reflect that in the end, the margin of victory by South Africa was in fact quite substantial.
However, in the win there is much that needs to be taken out and dissected. It would be naive in the extreme if AB de Villiers and his management didn’t take cognizance of a few disturbing little nuances that they don’t want to see happen too often.
If one is brutally honest, the pitch in the first quarter of the game was slow and suited the Zimbabwe type bowlers. All credit to them for making sure they bowled as straight as possible and hit a length that didn’t allow our batsmen to drive. Both Amla and de Kock clearly realized very early on in the innings that trying to go over the top wasn’t the option. They were forced into rather getting through unscathed. Sadly de Kock perished to the exact issue that they had recognized.
Once the track quickened up the entire game changed and we saw how easy it suddenly became for Millar and JP Duminy to rotate strike and to drive down the ground. Something that wasn’t easy to do for the first period.
The concern was that by the time the pitch had dried out the Proteas had already lost too many wickets and found themselves on the brink of a disaster. They managed to get away with it because the depth of the Zimbabwe bowling doesn’t allow them to sustain pressure throughout an innings and to be able to close out when the situation demands. That is why they are ranked where they are.
The message from the openers had to have been that it isn’t easy and caution was required. Also, they had to know that if they could get through the tough little period with wickets in hand they could exploit the poor quality of death bowling. That message wasn’t heard clearly enough and we lost wickets through it. It is a lesson.
On the bowling front I thought that Vernon Philander was the one stand-out man. He was able to slot into his comfort zone quickly. The rest looked ring-rusty. Morne Morkel battled to find the right length right from the start and so did Dale Steyn. It almost looked like it was the first game of a season and a few overs were needed to get into the groove. It allowed the Zimbabwe batsmen to score to freely in the early part of their innings and it created unnecessary pressure on the captain and fielding unit. We know that Dale Steyn and Morkel are quality performers but coach Allan Donald will need to find a way to make sure his bowlers don’t slip into that mode again. Stronger opposition will take the game away from them and put more pressure on those bowlers to follow. It’s another lesson to discuss.
The much-discussed number seven spot went to Berhadien against Zimbabwe. I could understand it in some way because of the nature of the pitches that are often encountered in New Zealand. Low and slow pitches will allow him to bowl little dobblers and make batsmen work hard with the wicket-keeper standing up. However, once the pitch flattens out and becomes a good batting strip, he is largely negated. We saw that scenario happen and he battled. My thinking is that when I look at his batting statistics over a period of time, they don’t stand out dramatically against someone who is a bowling specialist who can bat fairly well. I would rather go with that option and use JP Duminy as the batting all-rounder to give me a few overs, who I might add, on his day is quite capable of doing the job if the pitch turns a little. It’s another point of discussion for the management as they head to the MCG against India.
Looking ahead to the Indian challenge one cannot help feeling that we need to remember that a good few of them have been touring that country for a few months prior to the CWC and have adjusted well to the conditions. Their strength lies in their top-order setting up the innings for the likes of MS Dhoni. We have to bowl well right from the outset and back it up with top fielding.
The MCG is a tough ground to defend and running well between the wickets can often be the difference in a close game. I think the game will be decided right there and the Proteas hold the aces in that aspect.