Cape Town - Over to you now to salvage a Test series
stalemate, Proteas batsmen!
Barring a near-miracle, Australia’s first-innings
ruthlessness -- coupled with the loss of up to 50 overs of play to rain on day
two of the final Test at Newlands here on Sunday -- has taken victory out of
the equation for the No 1-ranked South Africans.
There seemed little point in Michael Clarke building much
(or any?) further on Monday to his team’s brawny total of 494 for seven,
despite his own ongoing occupation of the crease for 161 not out, an event signalling
a laudable return to personal form and a triumph for gutsy resilience under
physical bombardment at times.
So it is really all about whether his attack – a specialist
five-man one for the first time in the series given the presence here of Shane
Watson – can complete the necessary 20-wickets job on the home side over the
remaining three days, expected to be contested in considerably better weather.
South Africa’s first knock will be the really vital one; if
they fluff their lines with the pitch still behaving pretty decently (and
possibly even fail to fend off the follow-on) they would face a genuine
white-knuckle ride to avoid a first series loss since 2008/09 when the very
same foes won 2-1 on our soil.
What makes the challenge particularly interesting is that Graeme
Smith mentioned at the toss that his team intend putting out a greatly
re-jigged batting order, with Dean Elgar – successful as an opener in the Port
Elizabeth victory a few days ago – coming in at No 3, established dominator Hashim
Amla thus taking the reasonably unfamiliar role for him of four, and Faf du
Plessis dropping two slots to six.
The shake-up, if they stick to their stated script, is
presumably largely based around the belief that Elgar can do a better job in a
more natural upper-order position than somewhere in the middle where he is not
the ideal player to “push things on” if a good foundation has already been laid.
A counter argument might be that in accommodating the
diminutive Knights left-hander at important No 3, the furniture is being
shifted a little more than it needs to be.
Personally, I have felt for a while that Amla, soon to turn
31, eventually dropping one berth isn’t the worst call in the world – possibly
for the remainder of his Test career – provided that things can be made to work
successfully above him.
Yes, he has been wonderfully productive thus far at No 3,
where he averages 56.40, whilst in sporadic appearances at No 4 thus far his
figure drops to 23.88.
But his innings at four have largely been due to situations
where a night-watchman has preceded him; you have to go as far back as 2006 to
find his last predetermined stationing there.
It was for the two-Test series in Sri Lanka, won 2-0 by the
host nation, when Ashwell Prince led the side and Smith did not tour through
injury: the Proteas went in with a top four comprising, in order, Herschelle
Gibbs, Andrew Hall, Jacques Rudolph and then Amla.
For the last several years, taking “The Mighty Hash” out of
the No 3 spot would have made no sense.
But as his years advance, maybe it actually does add up for
him to emulate Jacques Kallis, who played some six years of Test cricket as No
3 for South Africa before opting to move down one position and be a little less
exposed to the new ball.
Remember that No 4 is often considered the glamour berth in
many Test teams’ armoury, and if a future Proteas side is able to establish
good stability up front, a middle order made up of Amla, AB de Villiers, Faf du
Plessis and JP Duminy between slots four to seven has a notably formidable look
Having Amla bat at four more regularly might be particularly
advisable on livelier tracks as he gets on a bit and his eyes and reaction
times will inevitably start to deteriorate just a little; admittedly he still
seems such a sound option at No 3 on more benign, Subcontinent-type tracks.
Why switching Amla to No 4 more permanently is anything but
a fait accompli yet – and it will be interesting to learn his own views on the
subject – is down to the fact that Alviro Petersen is well less than assured of
one of the opening berths, given his ongoing patchy form, and it also remains
to be seen whether Elgar can find a solid home for himself at three.
At least as things are planned for the current Test, then,
the vastly experienced Smith, 33, is the only truly “embedded” presence among
the crucial top three.
And even his future remains shrouded in some doubt after 12
gruelling years in the worldwide trenches at this level.
At his captain’s press conference on Friday ahead of the
third Test, several questioners tried to get an idea from him of just how long he
plans to keep going; he fielded the inquiries with customary skill while deftly
dodging any specifics as to his intentions.
There are members of the media, and I am among them, who
suspect his retirement may be considerably closer than some think.
Should he step down sooner rather than later, South Africa
will be weighing up their “cream” batting options all over again.
For the time being, the new pecking order in the top six
will be interesting enough to assess over the next few days at Newlands: it is
under pressure to deliver fairly smartly to help save a series.
our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing