And the key players are…

You will have heard this before, and you will hear it again, often, during the next 5-6 weeks. You will hear it, and read it, from commentators and journalists around the world. In fact, you will almost certainly hear it more from them than South Africans covering the World Cup.

The Proteas have many of the best players on earth. And some of the least distinguished.

It has been screamingly obvious for several years. The World Rankings give you a fair idea of which players make the most impact on matches, but for those who take no notice of contrived statistics, they need only look at who has scored the most runs for South Africa since the last World Cup.

Yet again at Kingsmead in the first match of the Momentum ODI Series on Friday, the Proteas lost early wickets and relied on Hashim Amla and AB de Villiers to rescue them. And yet again the two masters obliged. It is both reassuring and disturbing in equal measure. What a luxurious pleasure to have the best two batsmen in the world scoring runs so consistently. And how shudderingly thin and inconsistent the others can be if they fail.

In fairness, J-P Duminy does command respect and has ‘presence’ on the field. And Faf du Plessis started the transformation of his floundering ODI career in the last six months during which time his career average has moved from 27 to 34 having been anchored at number three. He has indisputably established his international credentials. David Miller, too, is world class – but inconsistent. Rilee Rossouw and Farhaan Behardien have it all to do.

Dale Steyn and Imran Tahir are the leaders of the bowling attack. Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander can produce match winning performances but seem unable to claw their way back into a contest after a bad start. The fifth bowler will be a gamble throughout the World Cup since the selectors committed themselves to playing seven batsmen and discarding the country’s best all rounder, Ryan McLaren.

The top half of the squad are the best in the world. Many of the bottom half would struggle to find a place in any of the other top eight squads. It is a peculiar situation. Depth is usually crucial to winning a tournament staged over six weeks, but the cricket World Cup is different. It should be, effectively, a knockout tournament involving the top eight teams. If there is a ‘surprise’ then my wild card would be Afghanistan. If they beat Scotland and Bangladesh in the group stages, they should feature in the top eight. But South Africa will be there along with the rest of the ‘big’ teams. Even if they lose a couple of games to Pakistan, India, West Indies or Zimbabwe, they surely can’t slip up against Ireland or the UAE. (Can thery?!)

With half a dozen brilliant players, South Africa can go all the way. Provided that they all stay fit and contribute significantly in three consecutive games. But the likelihood is that they will rely on, at some stage of the quarter and semi finals, if not the final itself, a career-changing contribution from one of the ‘pack’.

Fifty runs required from five overs with four wickets left. Defending 60 from the last six overs. The big stars won’t always be around at those times. Someone, somewhere, at some time, is almost certainly going to have to rise to the occasion to keep the dream alive.

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