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Has the razor-sharp pace attack of South Africa gone blunt?

Last updated on 23 Sep 2023 | 02:52 PM
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Has the razor-sharp pace attack of South Africa gone blunt?

Proteas might have won the series against Australia coming from behind, but their pace attack still is a concern

There is hardly a fortnight left before the 2023 ODI World Cup in India, and the preparations are already done for most teams. However, South Africa's preparations ended with a fruitful series result against Australia. 

At one point, to be precise, at the start of this year, Proteas were almost on the brink of playing the qualifiers in June. But a series win against England early in January, and the two wins against the Netherlands in February saw them attain a direct qualification. 

Winning a five-match series against a strong Aussie line-up, especially after defeats in the first two games, speaks volumes. Despite that, an area of concern remains with the pacers. You heard it right: their quicks are an obstacle.

This issue is an unfamiliar territory for a team like South Africa, which has produced generational speedsters. It couldn’t have been timed much worse, just ahead of the marquee event. 

The quicks bagged 67% of the wickets (29 out of 43), but they conceded at an economy of 7.2, their worst in a series consisting of three or more matches. In comparison, the spinners gave away 5.2 runs per over. 

The worrisome economy isn't just about the Australia series. In ODIs since 2021, their quicks have conceded at 6.04 runs per over. In this period, the Proteas seamers are the only ones to leak above six runs an over - believe it or not. 

As a result of their high economy, despite picking up wickets, their bowling average has taken a massive hit. Only West Indies (37.1) and Zimbabwe (35.8) have a poorer runs/wicket ratio than South Africa (34.4). To emboss it more, among the qualified teams for the World Cup, they are the worst. 

Adding to the wickets context, their pacers have scalped a four-wicket haul seven times and a five-wicket haul thrice. In total, ten four-plus wicket hauls. Bowlers have conceded above six runs in six out of those ten innings.  

In ODIs since 2021, Wayne Parnell is the most economical pacer (5.2) among bowlers with 10+ overs. Kagiso Rabada is the next best, with an economy of 5.4. However, the remaining seven bowlers have an economy close to six and above. 

The odd (good) man out

Rabada, Lungi Ngidi, and Marco Jansen will be South Africa's first-choice pacers in the playing eleven. With Anrich Nortje ruled out, Andile Phehlukwayo will rotate around as per pitch conditions. 

The choice of Phehlukwayo is secondary, but the three main pacers mentioned above will be sure-shot starters. Now for the agonizing part. None of their main three pacers have a satisfying record. Barring Rabada (29.6), the pace duo of Jansen (38.2) and Ngidi (40.5) average close to 40 in ODIs since 2021.

This is one aspect where they fall behind when we compare them with the other top three choice pacers of the qualified teams. Keeping the Netherlands out, only a handful of pacers average more than Rabada (who incidentally happens to be Proteas’ best).

Mark Wood averages 30.1, Lockie Ferguson averages (55), and Gulbadin Naib has picked up a wicket every 37.2 runs. 

Jansen and Ngidi are far too inconsistent

Ultimately, all that matters is the wickets column. If it is higher than two/game, then job well done. One or two odd occasions can be pardonable. 

Rabada is someone who excels in this department. Even if he goes for runs, he will ensure he picks up a wicket or two, going wicket-less only three out of 17 innings. When he has picked up wickets, he has bagged two or more 52.9% of the times (9/17). 

On the other hand, the other two have been (far) too inconsistent. Ngidi, in his 21 innings, has picked up two or more wickets in just FIVE innings (23.8%), and Jansen has achieved it in only four across 14 innings (28.6%).

Among the top three choice pacers of the qualified teams, only four pacers have picked up two or more wickets in 30 or lower percentage of innings. To South Africa’s unfortunate fate, Ngidi ranks second-lowest while Jansen ranks the fourth-lowest. 

A stumbling start

Generally, the new ball builds momentum at the beginning, and this is where South Africa are struggling big time. Be it economy or average, they rank the worst among the qualified teams. 

Since 2021, their pacers have picked up 34 ODI wickets in the first ten overs, and only Afghanistan have fewer (25). Even so, the Afghan quicks have bagged a wicket every 33.5 runs compared to South Africa’s 44.5. This comparison highlights their economy issues. Among the qualified teams, South Africa's average, strike rate (48.7), balls/boundary ratio (7.1), and economy (5.5) are the WORST!! 

Among the guys from the squad, Ngidi is their best bowler in this phase, averaging 34.8. But guess what, if not for his one innings against England where he picked up 3/8, the numbers would be slumping to an all-time low. 

In the remaining 18 innings where he has bowled at least one over in the powerplay, he has GONE WICKETLESS in 12 innings, that’s almost three-quarters of the time. And in the others, he has picked up a two-wicket haul once, and at least has picked up one wicket in five other innings. 

The other two first-choice pacers -  Rabada and Jansen - also haven't helped the cause. In total, all three of them haven't picked up a wicket in more than 60% of their innings in the powerplay. 

Due to their pacers' sub-par performances, the top four batters against South Africa average 45.9. None of the other qualified team pacers even average 40 against top-four batters. 

Come the middle overs (11-40), their pacers pick wickets at a better strike rate than powerplay (36.4). Only Indian quicks have snaffled a wicket at a better ratio (24.6). However, they have leaked runs at an economy of six, the worst. 

The X-factor in Nortje will be missed as the pacer is ruled out of the World Cup owing to a suspected stress fracture in the back. In his absence, a lot relies on the shoulders of Rabada. However, Rabada alone can't win matches. The other two pacers need to put their hand up. What else can be a more significant occasion than the World Cup to achieve that? 

Just an anecdote: Heading into the World Cup in 2011 (also in the subcontinent), South African pacers averaged 29.9, their third-worst between WCs. But, in the 2011 edition, their quicks averaged 18.6, their best in a World Cup. 

I will leave it there!

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