South Africa has always had a good squad in World Cups, but has never been able to get its hands on the coveted trophy. They came close in at times, as in 2015 when they made it to yet another semifinal, but New Zealand were better on the day.
The Proteas come into the 2019 World Cup as a strong unit, albeit without the talismanic AB de Villiers, who led them in the previous edition. Faf du Plessis will lead the Proteas this time, literally and figuratively from the front.
The team is a fine blend of youth and experience and seems to have what it takes to bring the cup home – but then again, that has been true of every edition in which the Proteas have figured.
Dale Steyn is the only fast bowler to make it to the 15 from the previous edition. With the likes of Kagiso Rabada, Lungi Ngidi and Andlie Phehlukwayo in the mix, South Africa have one of the best pace bowling units in the competition. In fact, since the beginning of 2018, their pacers have the best bowling average overall
The Proteas troika of Ngidi, Rabada and Phehlukwayo are among the top 10 wickets-takers in ODIs over the past year and more.
Backing the pace quartet is their main spinner Imran Tahir, winner of the Purple Cap in the recently-concluded Indian Premier League (IPL) and in the form of his life. Tahir is known to up his game when it comes to ICC events, having scalped 34 wickets at a strike rate of a wicket every 16.2 deliveries with a miserly economy rate of 4.1. He could well be du Plessis’ go-to man in this edition as well.
The recent series between England and Pakistan on English soil indicated that in the World Cup, even 340-plus scores are not good enough. The imbalance between bat and ball evidenced by the high scores has been the subject of considerable heartburn – but the Proteas will likely take comfort from the fact that while most teams have failed to defend scores of 300-plus, South Africa along with Afghanistan are the only two teams to have won all matches since the 2015 World Cup in which the side has scored in excess of 300. The equation is simple: If the batsman can score 300 or more, the Proteas have the bowling power to defend it against all comers.
Faf du Plessis not only has the highest win % (83.3) as ODI captain among all captains in the 2019 World Cup, he has been in quality batting form. Since 2018, his average of 66.2 is only behind Virat Kohli (90.65) and Ross Taylor (82.13). Du Plessis is also just one of three South Africans to average (53.9) more than 50 in World Cups (min 500 runs), behind Herschelle Gibbs (56.2) and de Villiers (63.5).
The right-hander is also reliable when the top-order collapses. When batting inside the first 15 overs, he has been dismissed just thrice in 23 innings since 2017, and goes at an average of 152.3.
South African batsmen have performed well against spin over the years. Quinton de Kock is particularly noteworthy in this respect: From 2013 to 2015 he scored at 83 runs per 100 balls against spin, but since then, he has a strike-rate of 105.1. Du Plessis for his part has the second best balls per dismissal against spin since 2017 (126.4) behind Ross Taylor (150). Another player, who could play an important role in the middle-order is Rassie Van der Dussen, who in his seven ODI innings averages 178 against spin.
With Tahir as their main spinner, they might look to JP Duminy to fill in with a few overs of off-spin if Tabraiz Shamsi isn’t included – which, given his performances since 2017, looks likely to be the case. In the 24 innings Shamsi he has bowled since then, he has picked up seven wickets at an economy rate of 5.7 and a strike-rate of 78.8. Duminy doesn’t have a particularly good batting record in English conditions either, having crossed 30 just twice in 16 innings, averaging 21.6 and striking at 71.5. All things considered, the Proteas are likely to go in with their four stellar pacers and star spinner Tahir; Duminy performing sixth bowler duties and giving the Proteas the extra comfort of his batting ability, where he will likely be used alongside David Miller as finisher.
One thing the South Africans will need to be wary of is injuries, of which they have had plenty in the recent past, most notably to star quicks Rabada, Ngidi and Steyn. Rabada had to pull out in the middle of the IPL while Steyn managed to play just a couple of matches before he too was forced to return. Fitness will be key, and injury to anyone in the first eleven can alter the team balance. They have already seen Anrich Nortje pull out, to be replaced by Chris Morris.
South Africa’s inability to perform in big tournaments despite having the squad to go all the way is one of their biggest drawbacks. The side has reached the semifinal on three occasions, but has failed to go to the next stage. The infamous tie in the semifinal against Australia in 1999 gave birth to the tag ‘chokers’. They have played in 11 ICC events since then, but have not managed to get rid of that unsavoury reputation. This time, they have the squad to try and end, once for all, their reputation of cracking at key moments in multinational tournaments.
Rassie Van der Dussan is seen as a replacement for AB de Villiers – big shoes to fill, but he looks to be someone with a terrific temperament, capable of playing responsibly through the middle and exploding at the death. He averages more than 88 in his nine ODIs so far, but strikes at a shade under 76 – which is not impressive, but he is a slow starter, scoring at a strike-rate of 57.5 in his first 20 deliveries, but once he is set he strikes at close to 100 in the latter stages of the innings, making him a very handy option for the middle order.
Since the 2015 World Cup, South Africa has won 84% of the matches when one of their top three batsmen have scored a century. However, in ODIs since 2018, the Proteas have had only five centuries from their top-order batsmen -- only Afghanistan (3) and Sri Lanka (1) have less. The Proteas will be hoping that in the batting conditions obtaining in England, their top three will turn this record around and set it up for the big finishing kick.
While Quinton de Kock has been South Africa’s top run-getter in three out of the four years since 2016, his Achilles heel is big tournaments. De Kock was lucky not to be dropped mid-way during the 2015 World Cup given abysmal form that saw him score just 145 runs at 20.7 from eight innings. In the Champions Trophy 2017, de Kock was again extremely slow at the top, striking at just 66.9 in his three innings.
The keeper-opener appears to have big stage nerves, but against that he has scored five 50-plus scores from his last six ODI innings, followed by a terrific IPL season in which he played a pivotal part in helping Mumbai Indians (MI) win a fourth title. Question is, will form rule, or will the big stage nerves kick in again – a crucial question since de Kock has an important role to play as a high-impact opener.
In the plus column, we had earlier talked of du Plessis’s form in World Cups. The flip side is, his ODI form in England does not do justice to his undoubted talent. He averages 28.5 in England, having scored just two fifties from 14 innings – it is only in the UAE (27) and in Sri Lanka (20.4) that he scores less. His form in England is key, because both as captain and as the bedrock of the Proteas batting, he is key to the team’s fortunes.
On paper, South Africa has what it takes to make it to the last four and even go all the way – if, that is, it can shed the baggage of past chokes and play to potential.