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How to beat South Africa

A data-driven strategic guide on how to beat South Africa.

Consider leaving out your SLA spinner

South Africa are likely to have four left-handers in their top seven, all nicely spread throughout the order: Quinton de Kock at the top, Rilee Rossouw in the middle and David Miller and Wayne Parnell at the death. This preponderance of left-handers can make getting through left-arm spin particularly difficult. Indeed, since the start of 2021 South Africa’s run rate against left-arm spin of 8.43 runs per over is the highest of any team in the world. They are particularly dangerous against left-arm spin through the middle overs where they score at 8.73 runs per over and average 44 since the start of 2021. Such is the strength of South Africa’s batting against left-arm spin that teams should consider leaving out such bowlers for this match.  

That said, the left-arm spinners in South Africa’s group: Axar Patel, Mohammad Nawaz and Shakib Al Hasan all play important roles with the bat. Of the three Axar is probably the most vulnerable for their fixture with South Africa. 

Pick an off spinner

The flip-side to the left-arm spin issues is that South Africa’s left-hander heavy batting order brings off spinners into the game. Expect Iftikhar Ahmed to play a considerable role for Pakistan in their fixture while India may select Ravi Ashwin if he isn’t already in the team and Bangladesh have Mehedy Hasan. Powerplay off spin is a particularly good option, with de Kock having clear issues against it. While Iftikhar is unlikely to bowl in the phase, Ashwin and Mehedy certainly could. Off spin continues to be a decent option through the middle overs with Rossouw being slowed massively by the spin away from the bat. 

Wickets can trigger role displacement

South Africa’s batting order is among the most well-constructed in the tournament. From numbers one to six they have alternating right and left-handers with complementary strengths against pace and spin and in different phases of the game. When each component fires the whole batting order comes together fantastically well – perhaps better than any other team in the tournament. However, the role definition of the order and the absence of any floating options, particularly when combined with its shallow nature (Dwaine Pretorius being ruled out should see bowling all rounder Parnell picked at seven) means that it is a batting order that can be significantly unsettled by early wickets shifting roles out of position – something we call role displacement.

For example, Miller and Stubbs are dangerous death over hitters but if the top order collapses they might be exposed too early only Parnell – who has never played the role – can be used as a floater to delay their entry-point for more favourable phases and match-ups. Both Pakistan and India have the new ball bowling to make early inroads to disrupt South Africa’s role clarity and their new ball quicks should be encouraged to attack early on. 

Be wary of high pace

South Africa’s batsmen are very familiar with high pace and bounce due to their home conditions. Teams should be wary of feeding this strength. This is particularly relevant to Pakistan who have an arsenal of high pace quicks. Encouraging them to take pace off the ball and disrupt the swing patterns of South Africa’s hitters should be considered. 

Attack the Powerplay with the bat

South Africa have a very strong pace attack but their most notable flaw is their lack of an established Powerplay wicket-taker and someone who can move the new ball. The injury to Pretrorius means Parnell is likely to start the tournament and this should boost South Africa in the phase, of all their pace bowlers he is the only one with a positive impact in the Powerplay in T20Is and finds comfortably the most swing. While Parnell boost South Africa’s quality in this phase teams should still see this as the phase to capitalise on with Kagiso Rabada, Anrich Nortje and Lungi Ngidi all being better post-Powerplay bowlers.

Ngidi is the weak-link

Although he has been in excellent form of late Ngidi probably represents the weakest link in this South African attack. Since the start of 2020 in matches that South Africa have lost he has conceded runs at 11.07 runs per over – making him comfortably the most expensive bowler in this period. Ngidi remains an effective wicket-taker but he can prove costly and targeting him can help unlock the rest of the attack, dragging bowlers out of other phases. Ngidi’s primary weapon is his slower ball which has become very effective in the last 18 months. It’s hard to pick and he has the pace to hurry you so you can’t set for it but at the death he bowls it with around half his balls.

Select a mix of right and left-handers; reverse Shamsi

It remains to be seen how South Africa construct their bowling attack and whether they pick both Maharaj and Tabraiz Shamsi or just one of the two and if it’s just one of them, which one it is. Shamsi is probably in their ‘base’ XI and will certainly play against left-hander heavy teams like Bangladesh and, if they qualify, West Indies. However, South Africa may be tempted to bring Keshav Maharaj into the team for their matches against right-hander heavy India and Pakistan. Having a healthy mix of right and left-handers should complicate South Africa’s selection process in this respect. India could spring a surprise by picking Rishabh Pant if they wanted to pre-empt Maharaj being selected –  although Pant’s recent numbers against left-arm spin shouldn’t give South Africa much cause for concern. 

Although Maharaj is considerably more expensive against left-handers they should still remain wary of him as a wicket-taking option: he takes wickets regularly against lefties. Against Shamsi a useful option is to turn to the reverse sweep – Shamsi’s fuller lengths bring the shot into play and batsmen average 59 when reversing the wrist spinner, although sweeping in Australia is far more risky because of the extra bounce. 

Freddie Wilde is Head of Performance Analysis at CricViz.

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