DANIEL GALLAN: Proteas all-rounders provide blueprint for Plan-B

LONDON - Chris Morris and Andile Phehlukwayo have played 18 ODIs together. They’ve scored 415 runs and have taken 39 wickets on the same side. Combined, they average around 25 with the bat and procure roughly 1.3 wickets per game.

By comparison, Shaun Pollock averaged 26 with the bat took 1.2 wickets per game. Lance Klusener’s oak-tree yielded an average of 41 runs while his golden arm bagged 1.2 wickets. Andrew Hall, a tidy all-rounder who no one would consider to be the equal of the two aforementioned greats, scored 26 runs per game and just about took one wicket every time he bowled for his country.

Morris and Phehlukwayo are evidently not the embodiment of a renaissance that harks back to a golden age of South African all-rounders. They are useful, yeoman-like grinders but world beaters they are not. At least, not individually.

Together they are more than the sum of their parts and now offer a tangible blueprint for Faf du Plessis’ Plan-B after Plan-A failed to progress beyond the drawing board.

Before the World Cup, the original strategy focussed on fast bowlers bowling fast for as long as possible. Anrich Nortje’s hand injury ruled him out before the team left OR Tambo International. Dale Steyn’s recurring shoulder ailment meant he didn’t bowl a ball in the UK. Lungisani Ngidi’s hamstring snapped four overs into South Africa’s second game against Bangladesh.

South Africa didn’t exactly put all their eggs in one dropped basket. What transpired was more the equivalent of dropping multiple baskets in quick succession leaving a mess that needed cleaning before du Plessis’ final World Cup was over before it began.

He needed a different plan. Thanks to his two all-rounders he has one.

“I’ve been really impressed with Morry,” du Plessis said after Morris’ 3/13 against Afghanistan. “He was a little off his game when he first joined [as a replacement for Nortje]. But he’s turned it around completely. He’s bowling really well. He’s hungry. He’s consistent and that’s something that has probably not always been there with him.”

Du Plessis was equally complimentary of Phehlukwayo after he claimed 2/18 and hit a run a ball 17 not-out that included a gargantuan game-winning six that landed in the River Taff: “Every single game he gets wickets. He’s also picked up a yard again. I feel there is more intensity with him hitting the crease, hitting the wicket. If he can hit that same spot and use his short ball every now and then, he’s an effective bowler. I’m really pleased with the way he’s going.”

Speaking after the game, both Morris and Phehlukwayo spoke about newfound rhythms. Morris, a taller quicker bowler who hits a shorter length, said he had tweaked his run-up over the last two weeks which has allowed him to get through a smooth action without much fuss at the crease.

Phehlukwayo, the stockier of the two, explained how he has generated that extra speed through extra effort. “I’m trying to bend my back more and it’s definitely something I’ve wanted to do for a while,” he said. “That pace comes from a technical shift but mostly an attitude shift. It’s about not being lazy and making sure I hit the deck hard every ball. Though it does mean I’m on the massage table more.”

With Ngidi expected to return to full fitness in time for Wednesday’s must-win game against New Zealand, there might be a temptation from du Plessis to return to something resembling Plan-A. Beuran Hendricks was the only bowler not to pick up an Afghan scalp but he looked threatening at times and his left arm swingers add variety to the attack. If he does retain his spot, he would form a tantalising trio with Ngidi and Kagiso Rabada.

But the runs garnered from the bats of Morris and Phehlukwayo emphasise their importance to the team. Morris was South Africa’s top scorer in the 6 wicket defeat to India and combined resilience with attacking intent in hitting 42 off 34 balls.

Phehlukwayo’s name is already synonymous with ‘Big Match Temperament’ and he has been striking it cleanly recently. He helped his side post a somewhat respectable score against India with 34 well-constructed runs and could have kicked on beyond his 24 against England were it not for Ben Stokes’ otherworldly overhead catch.

“I’m not far away,” he said when asked if a game-changing knock was around the corner. “I’ve been hitting it well and I’ve been moving well. I’m trying to take more responsibility and put more value on my wicket. It’s more a mental thing."

Off the field, both all-rounders are a joy. Morris has an ever-present smile on his face and is an immensely popular figure with the travelling press and former teammates. Part of his charm is the self-awareness he has regarding his privileged position. “The vibe hasn’t change in the camp,” he said. “It’s a World Cup so why wouldn’t we be happy?”

Phehlukwayo is similarly upbeat. His self-deprecating joke about his lack of pace and the way he can laugh at the myriad of ways stadium announcers have mispronounced his name reveals a relaxed mind behind his gapped-tooth grin. On Twitter he provides a constant stream of positivity: “I don’t know who needs to hear this but it might be hard now but it won’t last forever,” he tweeted on Friday.

Du Plessis does not have the likes of Pollock or Klusener in his ranks, and he certainly doesn’t have anyone in the same hemisphere as Jacques Kallis, but he does have something else; two cricketers who are not obvious match winners on their own but have enough tools between them to contribute to a winning cause.

By being more than the sum of their parts, Morris and Phehlukwayo provide balance to du Plessis’ attack and depth to the batting unit. If the Proteas do beat the Kiwis and then somehow sneak through the back door into the semi-finals, there could be need to add two more names to the list of great South African all-rounders. Well, some of two names at least.

Daniel Gallan is a freelance cricket correspondent for Eyewitness News based in the UK. Follow him on Twitter @danielgallan