This time last year, few would have argued with the notion that the Proteas needed to lose a few of their trusted senior players ahead of the World Cup.
The retired AB de Villiers – then on the verge of returning from sabbatical – was probably not one of them, but even if it was only whispered, the spotlight would definitely have been on Hashim Amla, JP Duminy, Dale Steyn and Imran Tahir.
The subsequent retirements of Morne Morkel and De Villiers may have strengthened the coaching team’s resolve to hold on to whatever experience they had left in their team with the World Cup in mind, but with their ages ranging from 34 to 39 Duminy, Amla, Steyn and Tahir weren’t exactly safe.
Duminy had just retired from test and first-class cricket, which was read as the beginning of the end even in the formats he wanted to be involved in; Amla’s form wasn’t exactly fair to middling; Steyn was a broken down sports car; and, although he may have bounded with the enthusiasm of a toddler playing in the backyard, there was no denying Tahir would be 40 come next year’s World Cup.
South African sports – rugby and cricket in particular – have a history of being beholden to experience to the point of fielding geriatrics when it comes to trying to solve the riddle of winning a World Cup.
The best, and most recent, example has to be the Springboks trying to win the 2015 World Cup with a team whose core won the 2007 version.
Cricket’s lesser version of the same thing was trying to nurse a tired Jacques Kallis’ considerable all-round skill to the 2015 edition Down Under, and De Villiers’ waning will to live at the cutting edge of cricket to England next year.
Both attempts didn’t work, De Villiers’ case turning the attention on the remaining four old timers.
Before his shoulder injury, Duminy was first to remove himself from that list with refreshed, mature and big-hitting performances throughout a period in which they only managed a total of 300 once before the final one-day international (ODI) against Australia last Sunday.
After many false starts after breaking his shoulder in Perth in 2016, Steyn has been next to extricate himself by bowling like a man 10 years his junior – consistently fast, taking wickets and burgling the odd runs with the bat.
Poor Tahir has done nothing but bowl his twirlers tidily, take wickets and exuberantly celebrate them throughout, but the fact that he’ll be Bra Immy by the time the World Cup rolls around means nobody’s sure if his performances will fall off the cliff with the advent of middle age.
Amla, he with so many unlikely ODI batting (he was supposed to be a test player, no more) records to his name, finds himself with the most to do when he returns from his finger injury.
His run-scoring hasn’t been flash, he’s the wrong side of 30 and he has yet to deliver a big innings in a must-win World Cup game.
But, in the same way that Steyn complements fellow quicks Kagiso Rabada and Lungi Ngidi, Duminy is the glue in the Proteas middle order, and Tahir gives the bowling attack a wrist-spinning edge they need, Amla has a big job on his hands – babysitting Quinton de Kock at the top of the order.
As the other half of an incredibly different yet successful opening pair, De Kock looks like he thrives only when he has to play his own game, which is the carefree hitting regardless of the game situation.
When he tries to rein himself in as a sort of leader of the batting order, it stifles him, which is where the calm Amla comes in.
A year ago, many felt too many of the Proteas’ experienced players were also experienced in falling short of the World Cup Holy Grail.
With only six months left, they’re starting to look like on-field consultants for their baggage-free young team-mates on what not to do.
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