Lessons in defeat for South Africa

Historic series win for Pakistan can give the Proteas some pointers as they try to avoid World Cup failures of the past.

De Villiers' captaincy is under scrutiny after the defeat to Pakistan [GALLO/GETTY]

South Africa’s loss on Wednesday at St. George’s Park was the Proteas’ first defeat to Pakistan in a series between the two nations.

In a game that swung throughout the day, both teams struggled to wrest control of the rain-affected match.

Eventually it was Pakistan that emerged triumphant through a dramatic finish, handing the visitors an improbable victory, winning by merely one run.

While Pakistan were on the precipice of an historic series victory by winning the first game on Sunday, few would have imagined that South Africa wouldn’t bounce back in the second fixture. Even fewer could’ve imagined the surprising manner in which they would go on to lose the game.

So what are the lessons from South Africa’s loss? I have five.

It showed that South Africa are still unlikely to emerge winners in crunch games where the opposition is more likely, and more willing to raise their game, innovate and change plans to achieve a victory. On Wednesday, the Proteas seemed to have conducted a methodical chase in most part, but professionalism very rarely trumps hunger and killer instinct – and Pakistan coaxed their way back into the game in a matter of a deliveries; little wonder South Africa repeatedly find themselves on the wrong end of World Cup knockout games.

De Villiers bedevilled

South Africa’s loss also revealed the extent to which the stoic, rigid approach to shifting the batting order bedevils the Proteas’ game – especially during a chase. The Proteas need to bring both AB De Villiers and David Miller up the order. Miller, in particular, stands to become another Albie Morkel – a finisher only in name, because he arrives too late to make an impression.

It is worth noting that the Proteas haven’t successfully chased a total since March. In fact, they’ve only chased successfully two times in 2013 itself, which is in itself quite revealing about their state of their middle order.

South Africa’s mistakes aside, this was a historic occasion for Pakistan. In the previous seven bi-lateral series between the two teams since South Africa’s readmission into international cricket in 1994, Pakistan have never emerged victorious, making Wednesday’s victory against a South African team – used to winning just about anything on home turf – an exceptional feat.

For Pakistan, it was the batting that turned the scales. Here, the team managed to post a significant total for a change, proving that commonly held belief among its fans that a Pakistani team that bats well cannot lose. This game proved this once again.

Nevertheless, this victory was good for the game, not just because a competitive Pakistani team is always good for cricket. The result also means that South Africa will not be able to bask in the glory of meaningless ODI series victories, which the team is used to achieving. Instead, it is an opportunity for the team to adjust its strategies and towards focusing on creating a more flexible unit ready to take on the twists and turns of the the next World Cup.

First things fourth

Here’s the fourth. At the top of that to-do list is their batting.

With Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis reaching the twilight of their careers, the Proteas’ reliance on Hashim Amla in ODIs is becoming burdensome, even problematic. If he scores a century, the team is guaranteed a victory. In fact, the Proteas have never lost a game when Amla has passed the 100 mark, but this does mean that the team’s fortunes are becoming inextricably linked to the performance of one man.

On Wednesday, Amla made 98, and the Proteas lost by 1 run. But Amla’s plaudits aside, it is South Africa’s talented but brittle middle order where the trouble lies. At the heart of the problem is the compact, stylish but erratic JP Duminy.

As it stands, he is not the solution to the number six position, so crucial in one-day cricket. Duminy is meant to play the role of a Suresh Raina for the Proteas, able to take on multiple roles, as a top order batsman who can consolidate, attack or protect the tail.

On his current form however, he is too unreliable, and solving this position is paramount to shifting the team’s fortunes.

And finally, as talented, dedicated and earnest as he might be, Wednesday’s result must surely also bring some unwanted attention to the captaincy of AB de Villiers.  

Whereas Misbah ul-Haq must marshal a team struggling with injuries and a depleted and inexperienced batting order, de Villiers seemed unable to respond to Pakistan’s inventiveness at the death even with a superior team at hand. There is a reason he has never captained a first class team before and it seems unfair to both him and the team to lump the leadership burden on him.

Next week, the Indian team arrives in South Africa for a much anticipated series. It will be the first time India play a series in South Africa without Sachin Tendulkar.

Even then, facing off against MS Dhoni and his team this summer, is likely to be quite a test for de Villiers; it is also likely to illuminate how (un)prepared, inflexible South Africa remains in a game that is so quickly changing.

Source: Al Jazeera