South Africa's Achilles Heel: A floundering top-order stuck in no man's land

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24 Jan 2020 | 07:50 AM
Rohit Sankar

South Africa's Achilles Heel: A floundering top-order stuck in no man's land

Where exactly has South Africa's batting faltered?



The ongoing series between South Africa and England has been a pretty interesting one for the home team whose fallacies with the bat have glaringly shown up. The obvious narrative is that South Africa's top-order has faltered over the last couple of seasons, but the objective here is to find out where exactly it has all gone wrong for the Proteas.

Out of the top 10 players to face the most deliveries in this series, five are English, five are South African. Nothing to separate the teams on that front. However, of batsmen with the eight best batting averages in the series, only one is a South African - Quinton de Kock, who is pertinent to our discussion on the home team's shortcomings when it comes to batting.

It is worth mentioning that South Africa's lower middle-order and tail as such haven't been as brittle as their top-order. From Anrich Nortje, who was welcomed by the chirpy English slip cordon at Port Elizabeth with the tag "AB de Nortje" for his incredible resistance with the bat, to Keshav Maharaj, who put off-spinning genius Joe Root in his place, and Vernon Philander, who has faced 366 deliveries in this series, the tail has been reasonably good for the Proteas. 

Guiding them is their new ODI captain, de Kock, who is the only batsmen to have a 40-plus average for South Africa in this series and has easily been their best batter in Tests since the beginning of 2019. 

If South Africa have put up decent totals in the last few months in Tests, it has almost always been the lower middle-order and late order punching above their weight after disappointing performances from the top-order. In nine out of 12 innings since the beginning of the India tour, South Africa have lost their fourth wicket before crossing the three-figure mark as a team. The scores at the point of losing their fourth wicket in this time frame? 63, 52, 41, 71,107, 26, 97, 62, 157,164, 71 and 66. Pretty unimpressive from a top-order that seems quite good on paper at least.

The top five of the South African batting line-up has consistently let the team down since 2019. A look at the combined batting averages and centuries scores of the top five batsmen from each Test team reveals exactly where South Africa stand among other teams. The average of their top five - 24.14 - is the third least behind Ireland and West Indies, and they only have two hundreds from top-order batsmen in the last one year.

However, one stat that could fly under the radar is that the top five strike at a combined rate of 46.97 runs per 100 deliveries, which is pretty defensive in this day and age. That they have no enforcer at the top of the order is worrying because quite a lot of times South Africa have found themselves succumbing meekly to pressure applied by the opposition early in an innings until de Kock steps in to salvage the ruins a bit. 

The batting unit as such has failed since AB de Villiers, who used to anchor the innings or set the tempo, retired from international cricket. De Kock and him are the only two South African batsmen (minimum - 100 runs) to score runs at an average greater than 35 and strike rate higher than 50 since the beginning of 2018. 

Since 2019, de Kock has been the sole batsman in that category and he has been doing an exceptional job of covering up for the shortcomings of his teammates. With an average above 40 coupled with a strike rate that is over 70, de Kock has not only made runs on a consistent basis but made them quick enough to put pressure on the opposition’s bowlers. 

What's notable here is that aside from de Kock, skipper Faf du Plessis is the only batsman to average over 30. But his strike rate of 45.79 means that he has been focused on occupying the crease more than scoring runs. 

Du Plessis' attitude is actually synonymous with South Africa's general approach - barring de Kock of course - in Test cricket now. Since 2019, South Africa have six entries in the list of the 30 least scoring rates in a completed innings. Interestingly, they have lost all six Test matches involving these particular innings.

In fact, their much adored blockathon tactic has been more of a failure than success since their outstanding effort against Australia in Adelaide in 2012. South Africa have completed 17 innings in 15 Tests at a run-rate of 2.5 or lesser in the time period following that Adelaide Test. They have lost 11 of these Tests, drawn thrice and won just once (against Zimbabwe in 2014). Five of those 11 losses have come since 2018. That's too poor a success rate for them to carry on batting in the fashion they have been doing of late.  

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