Freddie Wilde suggests South Africa’s superb bowling attack hints at life after de Villiers.
Some sportsmen are so good that teams can build their entire strategies around them: Lionel Messi in football, Dan Carter in rugby. In cricket, especially ODI cricket, AB de Villiers was one of those players.
de Villiers is arguably the greatest ODI player to ever play the game and in South Africa’s ODI team he elevated their batting from good to exceptional and in doing so South Africa became one of the finest ODI teams in the world for close to a decade. It is entirely understandable therefore that his sudden international retirement in March has destabilised South Africa’s ODI strategy.
They will of course look to the likes of David Miller, Farhaan Behardien and Heinrich Klaasen to replace de Villiers’ contribution in the middle and death overs. However, even if as a trio they somehow manage to do that they cannot provide the balance that a single player as brilliant as de Villiers did. In all likelihood if South Africa are to reach the kind of totals that they managed with de Villiers in their team they are going to have to adjust their batting strategy by asking the top order – Quinton de Kock, Hashim Amla, Aiden Markram and Faf du Plessis to bat more positively. But that will carry risks – South Africa’s top order have been excellent at what they do for a number of years now; upsetting that could cause more harm than good.
There may however be another way. South Africa’s thumping win over Australia in Perth hinted at a strategy to cope with life after de Villiers: they don’t necessarily need to replace his contribution with runs; they could replace it in the field.
South Africa’s win in Perth was only their ninth ODI since de Villiers retired but it was also their first ever ODI with Dale Steyn, Lungi Ngidi, Kagiso Rabada and Imran Tahir in the same team and together they were spectacular, reducing Australia to 66 for 6 before bowling them out for 152.
With de Villiers in the team South Africa were defined by their batting which was capable of posting totals of 350 and above but with those four bowlers their bowling could come to define their approach and who knows, 250 might prove to be defendable. Of course these are early days – Steyn needs to stay fit which is a rarity, and even then doubts remain if he can rediscover his old brilliance, but in the 2017 Champions Trophy Pakistan showed the value of a strong bowling attack in the modern ODI game and in Perth, South Africa hinted at what theirs could do as well.
Admittedly, it was an excellent toss for South Africa to win: the pitch had more than a tinge of green and being a new venue with a drop-in strip, batting second was the obvious choice. That said, the brilliance of South Africa’s bowling in the first 20 overs was put into context by the performance of the Australian bowlers later in the day who could not maintain anywhere near the same degree of control. The conditions assisted both sets of bowlers in relatively equal measure but only one attack had the discipline and skill to exploit it.
This wasn’t only an excellent performance compared to Australia’s though, this was an excellent performance by any standard, exceeding the average for pace bowlers in Australia in that phase of the game in every measure except average swing. South Africa bowled with pace, accuracy, movement and intelligence. Australia’s top order played a number of poor shots that led to dismissals but they were partly induced by the excellence of South Africa’s unrelenting bowlers. Steyn’s pace in particular was impressive and encouraging – his average speed of 141.45 kph was his highest in fourteen ODIs dating back to the 2015 World Cup.
The fielding was also electric and served to heighten the feeling of a siege mentality: du Plessis pulled of a superb diving catch at second slip to remove D’Arcy Short before Miller spectacularly ran out Pat Cummins with a diving direct hit.
South Africa have the intimations of bowling depth as well. Fifth bowler Andile Phehlukwayo is the weak link in the attack and is always likely to have a higher economy rate but his strike rate is improving and he is growing into his role in the team. Neither Chris Morris or Dwaine Pretorius have managed to secure a spot in the side but they have raw materials—pace and good defensive options—to suggest they can improve their ODI records. Left-arm wrist spinner Tabraiz Shamsi provides a second spin option alongside Tahir and part-timer JP Duminy.
Over the last 18 months Pakistan have made their bowling attack the defining feature of their ODI cricket and honed a strategy to get the best out of that attack. On today’s evidence, if South Africa can keep their fast bowlers fit it is not unrealistic to see them doing something similar.
Freddie Wilde is an analyst at CricViz. @fwildecricket