DANIEL GALLAN: Andile Phehlukwayo - the Proteas keystone
Like a dog owner concerned with the well-being of his beloved companion, Faf du Plessis is comfortable with the length of his team’s tail and sees no reason to clip it.
While other sides may look to their lower order to bail them out of trouble should calamity strike, Du Plessis has sent a clear message to all who have asked: he is putting his faith in out-bowling his opponents and will, therefore, fill those positions with bowlers who can, on their day, bag him five-for.
It makes sense when you look at who is at his disposal. Imran Tahir and Kagiso Rabada are the fourth and fifth best ranked ODI bowlers in the world respectively. Lungi Ngidi is a menace who must be one of the most uncomfortable quicks in the world to face. Dale Steyn has that crazed look of old and his body still moves lithely enough to send down the odd unplayable swinger.
The catch is none of them are guns with a bat in hand. In fact, since 2017’s Champions Trophy, South Africa’s eight to eleven has a combined averaged of just 12.16 runs per dismissal. Of all the teams competing at the World Cup, only Sri Lanka’s tail is less productive.
Why not opt for the extra all-rounder? Going on the fact that Chris Morris was a reluctant pick - only securing passage to the UK as a result of Anrich Nortje’s injury - and that neither he nor Dwaine Pretorius were overly impressive with the ball in the warm-up game against Sri Lanka in Cardiff last week, that seems an unlikely prospect. Besides, Du Plessis reiterated after that game that if Steyn is fit there is only one place available for one of his three seam bowling all-rounders.
That position is the sole domain of Andile Phehlukwayo who, it can be argued, is one of the most important players of any side at this year’s World Cup.
Just past his 23rd birthday, Phehlukwayo has already played 43 ODIs, averaging 32 with the bat and 29 with the ball. Both those numbers do not do him justice.
He has a golden stream running through the brachial artery in his right arm and has a knack of breaking partnerships through a combination of slower balls, cutting bouncers and variations in line and length. He bowls that apocryphal "heavy-ball" and appears faster than the speed gun would have you believe.
He swings a mighty willow and finds the boundary regularly. Most importantly, he has something not many of his countrymen down the years have had: Big Match Temperament.
He showed that in only his second ODI innings as a 20-year-old when he belted an unbeaten 42 off 39 balls to help drag South Africa beyond Australia’s 371 at his home ground in Durban. With the team set up the way it is, one feels he’ll need to replicate those heroics at some stage over the next six weeks.
“I definitely see myself as the finisher of the team,” Phehlukwayo said after that warm-up game in Cardiff where he hit a run-a-ball 35 before collecting 4/36 from seven overs. “I relish that responsibility and have been working on my power hitting game.”
If you could travel back in time and tell a Proteas fan of the 1990s just how important the number seven position will be, they’d want to know what the hell had gone wrong. In the 1999 semifinal - yes, that one - Lance Klusener walked out to bat at number eight. Such was the glut of all-rounders at Hansie Cronje’s disposal.
Today, Du Plessis has no such luxury and has had to either stick or twist on a bold strategy that has the potential to pay dividends, bowling sides out for 150, or end in abject failure as his batters run out of puff chasing a gargantuan score.
The form of David Miller is a worry. He hasn’t passed 50 in an ODI since his 139 against Australia last November, and while there is no question that on his day he is the destroyer in chief of this outfit, it would be unwise to bet the farm on his erratic hitting.
This underlines Phehlukwayo’s importance at seven. As the fifth bowler, he will be expected to deliver ten overs each innings but it is with the bat that his impact will be most keenly felt. If he succeeds, South Africa could well win the thing. If he fails, that tail will be exposed and might crumble against whatever rampage had seen off the top-order.
Phehlukwayo is the keystone to the batting lineup. The man holding the whole structure in place. If he feels any pressure he has an interesting way of showing it; all smiles, easy charm and a casual approach to his craft.
“I’m in a good space,” he said. “Whatever position I find myself in on the field I’ll back my abilities and go in with confidence. Everything leading up to the tournament has gone well. There’s always pressure but I’m ready to perform my job for the team.”