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South Africa gain plenty of answers as Australia’s search continues

Last updated on 17 Sep 2023 | 06:30 PM
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South Africa gain plenty of answers as Australia’s search continues

When the Proteas were 0-2 down, they were under utmost pressure, but then they rose like a phoenix to win the series 3-2

At 0-2, little did anyone expect South Africa to make a comeback. 

In fact, they were buried down to death in the second ODI. Uttering the words - South Africa and comeback - together in the same sentence felt like a joke between two friends. 

Australian openers Travis Head and David Warner were batting like a dream. Marnus Labuschagne, who was a late replacement for Steve Smith, showed his worth with a scintillating century in the second ODI. 

Whoever Mitchell Marsh threw the ball to - Adam Zampa, Nathan Ellis, Sean Abbott - all struck whenever the skipper demanded. It was like Australia were a world-beater, and within a fortnight, everything changed. 

Suddenly, South Africa found a spring in their step. Everything missing in the first two ODIs started springing to life when the middle-order clicked perfectly. Aiden Markram turned into a beast, Heinrich Klaasen was at his blazing best, and then the only missing puzzle - David Miller - too started churning out match-winning displays. 

Whatever questions South Africa had about their bowling unit - one by one - were answered in last three ODIs, and suddenly, the Proteas have turned themselves into a dark horse for the 2023 ODI World Cup in India. So, what clicked for them? 

South Africa’s middle-order timely step-up

The Proteas out-batted the Australian side and by a huge margin - 271 runs. 

Crucial to that particular statistics is the Proteas’ middle-order (4-7), chalk-and-cheese different from their opposition. Despite Marnus Labuschagne scoring a total of 203 runs, the other Australian middle-order batters only combined to score 281 runs. 

Just to be clear, South Africa’s two middle-order batters - Aiden Markram and Heinrich Klaasen - combined to score 468 runs, with a strike-rate well and truly above 100. If someone had to put a differential between the two teams, South Africa’s middle-order batting will be the biggest factor. 

If either Markram or Klaasen didn’t quite contribute to the cause, David Miller scored 202 runs, averaging a high 50.5, with two 50s in the series and a 49. Middle-order contribution includes a 174 from Klaasen, a 102*, a 93 from Aiden Markram and an 82 from Miller. To sum it up, South Africa’s middle-order scored 804 runs in the series, while their Australian counterparts could only score 484 runs. Guess where Australia lost? 

South Africa wanted Jansen to perform, and he did

It was almost THE CRUCIAL SERIES for Marco Jansen. Given how South Africa’s bowling has been shaped over the past year, Jansen seemed like the perfect transition between the batting and bowling units. He opens the bowling, has a slower delivery, and can bowl across the phases. 

All that was missing was for him to prove his worth. Is it shocking? Well, numbers will paint a tale that you need to see. Since the beginning of 2022, Jansen was the third-worst South African pacer heading into the Australian series. His average - 45.2 - was only behind Maharaj and Wayne Parnell. 

Not just that, the left-arm pacer’s biggest worry was his waywardness, conceding a total of 23 extras. But during the course of the series, Jansen’s improvement was perhaps the best of the lot. He started the series with a wicket, with a spell of 1/44, and then had a roadblock when he conceded 1/63. And then, a lull when he blanked in the third ODI. 

Heading into the second innings of the fifth ODI, Jansen had already proved his worth with the bat - 134 runs @33.5 and SR of 125.2. But then came the ultimate dagger, a rare five-wicket haul that stunned the Australian side. Perhaps the right mixture of cutters and bouncers took the Australian batting by surprise. 

South African spinners triumph their counterparts

Tabraiz Shamsi’s form took a nosedive. Keshav Maharaj hadn’t played cricket for some time, only returning in the last T20I against Australia. So, this series was essential on multiple levels for the Proteas side ahead of the ODI World Cup in India, where conditions are perhaps one of the best for the spinners, if not the best. 

They desperately wanted both of them to shine, and it couldn’t have been set up any better. Between Maharaj and Shamsi, they picked up 14 Australian wickets. That isn’t even the shocking fact, the shocking fact is their average. While Maharaj averaged 16.9 in the series, Shamsi averaged just 15. FIFTEEN!! 

Just for comparison, Adam Zampa averaged 34.1 in the series. 

Has Sean Abbott pipped Josh Hazlewood?

Australia entered into this series perfectly knowing what their best bowling lineup was going to be, and it included a certain Josh Hazlewood, who, over the last few years, has been a threatening factor in the Australian bowling unit. 

Since 2021, Hazlewood’s appearances in the ODI format have not been in a row owing to various injuries, but that hasn’t stopped him from picking up 25 wickets. He is only behind Adam Zampa and Mitchell Starc in terms of most wickets taken in that time frame for the Australian side. But then came an ABSOLUTE STINKER - five wickets @ 38.80 - which truly could put a pause to his ODI career.

Sean Abbott walked in and took utmost advantage of the situation, ensuring that he bailed this rather inexperienced bowling unit against a strong Proteas batting unit. While Abbott is certainly of the high-variance kind, he also brings a strong batting side to his game makes him a firm favourite. 

In case Australia pick up three pacers, Abbott could be favourite to be the third. In the series, the all-rounder picked up five wickets and scored 41 runs, bowling the tough overs (41-50), where he picked up four out of his five wickets. 

Marnus Labuschagne on that plane to India?

Travis Head is injured. 

In all probability, Australia will have to open with Mitchell Marsh. That leaves the No.3 spot open for grabs. Steve Smith holds to that No.3 spot. Then what? Who bats at No.4? 

Incidentally, Marnus Labuschagne was auditioning for that role without doing that. Without even being aware of the Head injury (unless he was a prophet), there is no way that Labuschagne knew that his runs would come off this big a value for the national side. 

Also Read: Marnus Labuschagne, the ultimate opportunist, has done it again

Across five games, no one across both the teams scored more runs than Labuschagne (283 runs @70.75 and 96.6 SR). He also scored a fifty and a century in the series, showing that he has improved massively as a white-ball player. The calmness and composure with which he handled the two spinners perhaps was the hallmark of his ODI game. So, don’t be surprised and shocked if Labuschagne makes the cut. 

Stoinis or Green, Australia have a choice to make

Okay, the last dilemma, trust me. Australia were clear about who was their first-choice all-rounder - Mitchell Marsh. If you had asked them before the start of the Ashes, the second choice would have been straightforward, too. Cameron Green was in pole position to make it to the playing XI and still is. But the choice, though, isn’t that straightforward. 

Marcus Stoinis provides an edge with the new ball, picking up seven wickets and averaging 32. But with the bat, the all-rounder has been nothing short of shocking. And then, there is Green, someone who knows the Indian conditions well, has done well in these conditions and, more importantly, has that ability to reverse the ball. 

After a staggering 2022, where Green averaged 67.25, scoring 269 runs, 2023 has been shocking with just 30 runs, averaging 15. Plus, he averages 73 with the ball. There’s a lot for Australia to consider, and maybe we could even see someone like Ashton Agar pip the two.

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