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Proteas top order must step up to keep SA’s World Cup hopes alive

Another calamitous show with the bat in Cardiff on Saturday and South Africa’s Cricket World Cup campaign will be over.

Proteas vs India at the 2019 Cricket World Cup. Picture: @Cricketworldcup/Twitter

There was an air of predictability that punctured the Southampton drizzle on Monday when Aiden Markram trudged back to the pavilion after scoring only 5 against the West Indies. It wasn’t the manner of his dismissal - caught down the leg side to a ball that would have been called wide - or because of the bowler he was facing - the pacer Sheldon Cottrell. What gave the impression of an act seen before was that Markram had moments ago played a majestic drive to the cover boundary.

When Markram presses forward and shows off those high elbows of his he looks like the next great South African batsman following the lineage of Pollock, Richards, Kallis, Amla and De Villiers. The problem of late is that his trademark shot has too often preceded his doom.

Against England in the opening game he followed up an exquisite cover drive off Jofra Archer by wafting at a shorter one that nestled in Joe Root’s hands at first slip. Against Bangladesh he looked immovable for 56 balls worth 45 runs before missing a straight one for Shakib Al Hasan that cleaned him up.

It’s not as if Markram has been dismissed after several mistimed slogs or playing and missing at half volleys. What has proved frustrating, no doubt for him most of all, has been the erratic oscillation between world class and mediocre.

Unfortunately, Markram is not alone. Every single batsmen in the side has looked good in patches. Some have even looked great. But rather than kick on and score a game-changing hundred they have contrived a way of losing their wicket.

Watching from the team balcony has been Dale Benkenstein, the Proteas batting coach and the man responsible for finding a solution to the lack of runs and maddeningly soft dismissals. It is disconcerting that he is unsure what the problem is.

“Putting your finger on why they’re going out when they have is almost impossible,” Benkenstein said after watching his batters crumble to 29/2 in just 7.3 overs against the West Indies. “We’ve had opportunities to get hundreds, to get hundred-run partnerships. I feel we’re a game away, a hundred away, a win away from getting that confidence back. These guys haven’t become bad players in a week.”

Benkenstein's comments are simultaneously reassuring and alarming. He’s right in his argument that the household names in the batting line-up have not suddenly forgotten how to score big runs. Watching Hashim Amla flick through midwicket or Quinton de Kock cut backward of square over the last few weeks proves his theory.

It also shows that Benkenstein is not looking to tinker too much. Sure, change is needed, but when a coach uses a heavier hand than is required the pendulum can swing too far the other way. Technically that could mean a batsman taking a bigger stride towards the ball than is necessary or refusing to play a pull shot even to balls that demand to be pulled.

However, what does sound the warning bells is Benkenstein’s assertion that at best is a deliberate avoidance of the problem and is at worst the propagation of fake news: “If you look at it, we’ve actually played well,” he said with a straight face. “But at the moment we’re not firing.”

That last bit is especially true at the top of the order. Jason Roy (153) and Joe Root (103) have scored hundreds in England’s top three. Rohit Sharma (122 not-out) and Shiikar Dhawan (117) have brought up three figures opening for India. Bangladesh’s Shakib Al Hasan has done so batting at three. De Kock has South Africa’s highest score with just 68.

Ottis Gibson’s pre-tournament plan was built on the strength of his bowling attack. Although injuries to Anrich Nortje, Dale Steyn and Lungisani Ngidi meant a rethink was in order, that plan required the top six to contribute with runs in order for it to work. Even at their best, South Africa’s bowlers still needed runs on the board to defend.

In the four matches South Africa have played the top six have averaged just 27.35 at a strike rate of 82.87. Only Sri Lanka and Afghanistan have worse numbers. South Africa’s highest partnership in that time is 85. Two batsmen have only put on more than fifty on four occasions with one of them being the eighth wicket stand of 66 accumulated by Chris Morris and Kagiso Rabada against India.

“We’ve often found it difficult to get the balance between attack and defence right,” was one theory postulated by Benkenstein. “We need to show more patience and hunger to get us deeper into the innings so that the hitters at the end can get us over the line. The all-rounders and bowlers are doing well. It’s not rocket science. We need a guy in that top order to bat through, to get a big score."

Benkenstein downplayed the impact of the bombshell dropped by the new that AB de Villiers made a late attempt to join the squad. He said that those in the 15-man squad are not thinking about De Villiers and are fully focussed on the task at hand. Instead, he chose to focus on the dire situation his team find themselves in and sought to put a positive spin on it.

“It’s simple; we have to win every game and that is not a bad position to be in mentally,” he said. “We need to remind them that they’ve done it before. No one needs to be superman. They are all feeling really good and we have to believe that it is around the corner.”

Their next task is against Afghanistan and their twin spin threat of Rashid Khan and Mujeeb Ur Rahman, ranked third and 12th on the ICC ODI bowling charts respectively. If the weather allows a full game that means at least 20 overs of world-class spin, a prospect that will not sit easily with Proteas fans desperate for something to pin their hopes on.

Benkenstein might not know exactly what is troubling his out of sorts batters. One thing he will know is that another calamitous show with the bat in Cardiff on Saturday and this World Cup campaign will be over.

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