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Injuries force Proteas to think out of box ahead of World Cup

Lack of fast bowlers throws plans in air

Temba Bavuma of the Proteas during the 2nd Betway One Day International match between South Africa and Australia at Mangaung Oval on September 09, 2023 in Bloemfontein, South Africa.
Temba Bavuma of the Proteas during the 2nd Betway One Day International match between South Africa and Australia at Mangaung Oval on September 09, 2023 in Bloemfontein, South Africa.
Image: Charle Lombard

The Proteas were always going to have to be more flexible in their approach to the World Cup, and now that adaptability will be the major focus.

Temba Bavuma’s team had built their primary strategy for the tournament on the back of their fast bowling.

“We want to be in a position to pick four fast bowlers every time we play, whoever those are, that they are up to the mark and play the way that we want to play,” said head coach Rob Walter. 

Two important components that fed into that strategy won’t be available for the World Cup after confirmation on Thursday that Anrich Nortjé’s lower back injury and Sisanda Magala’s ailing knee meant they would miss the competition.

It is hugely disappointing, Walter said, and not just for the two individuals involved. Nortje also missed the 2019 tournament with a fractured thumb. Magala, having battled for many years with fitness, broke into the team last summer and provided plenty of evidence regarding his wicket-taking ability. 

Their respective strike rates (balls bowled per wickets taken) are both below 30, and the players replacing them don’t provide the same level of threat. Lizaad Williams is an honest and determined professional, but doesn’t bowl 150kph-plus like Nortje. Andile Phehlukwayo has a tremendous range of skills but has lacked consistency throughout his career. 

The Proteas may not acknowledge it publicly but it will demand a change in thinking. Importantly against Australia, they showed they could be flexible, with the third match in Potchefstroom providing some insight. 

There, both Tabraiz Shamsi and Keshav Maharaj started on a pitch offering spin, demonstrating not only a capacity to control a match but also take wickets. SA’s brains trust are of the opinion that most of pitches in India will be good for batting and that in the first few weeks there may even be assistance for the seamers. 

Kagiso Rabada, Lungi Ngidi and Gerald Coetzee should still thrive. Ngidi was starting to find some good form when the Australian series moved to the highveld and, while pitches won’t be as bouncy in India, the confidence he gained at the end of the series should carry him in India. 

Coetzee, who struggled with his control against Australia, is likely to play an increased role in Nortje’s absence and SA’s warm-up matches next week against Afghanistan and New Zealand will be critical to help him find rhythm.

Rabada has not been at his best recently and then picked up a mild ankle injury that hopefully won’t hamper his impact. He becomes a central figure now because there would have been a plan about rotating him and Nortje for certain matches, particularly in the latter stages of the round-robin phase when the Proteas play three matches in 10 days, with plenty of travel in between. 

Managing Rabada – who at the 2019 World Cup was well short of his best owing to a back problem, and then again at last year’s T20 World Cup, where he was in the “red zone” for much of the tournament – will be vital.

It has left the South Africans needing to think smartly about how to use their fast-bowling resources, with reliance on their spinners, especially in the first few weeks being the best way to do that. Throughout his brief involvement with the team, Walter and the players have spoken of the importance of adapting to conditions and circumstances, an aspect that will now be properly tested. 

Previous World Cup squads cemented starting teams and game plans. They were unable to budge from those. The 2023 group can’t afford to do that and tinkering with personnel to unlock Plan B, C and D must become a feature for Bavuma’s side.   

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