Little sense in two SA spinners
Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - Perhaps to simply delay the inevitable thumbs-down for one of them, people in the Proteas camp keep talking of the possibility of deploying two spinners in the first Test against Australia here “if conditions warrant doing so”.
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I’ve got news for them that they probably already know deep down anyway: the pitch at Newlands from Wednesday will almost certainly not justify so eccentric a move as fielding both Imran Tahir and Paul Harris.
The ground’s young, astute curator Evan Flint will struggle to present that sort of environment at this early stage of the season, for starters: his strip may well be on the slow side, but that doesn’t automatically translate into “spinners’ paradise”.
He is also anxiously watching a variety of domestic and authoritative international weather websites, some of which strongly suggest at least some rain a day ahead of the Test and then on day one itself - and overcast and cool in the Western Cape in late spring is a very contrasting scenario to the sweltering sunshine required to make a pitch abrasive and dry and break up significantly on the fourth and fifth day of a Test match.
Modern history tells you that South Africa - and a good many of their opponents, too - don’t play two spinners in the hottest months of January or February at the picturesque ground; why should it suddenly seem the right way to go in the first part of November?
Seasoned middle-order batsman Ashwell Prince, while another on Monday to cagily champion the “we’ll play a pair if it’s feasible” philosophy at a media briefing, did also inadvertently signal the very slim chance of actually going that route.
“I’m not sure it’s happened in my Test career (spanning nearly 10 years - Sport24) that we’ve played two spinners on any SA pitch,” he said.
And you have to go a long way back indeed to find the last instance of South Africa applying that formula at Newlands: it was on January 22-27 1970, when Ali Bacher’s immortals started their 4-0 rout of the Aussies with victory by 170 runs in the first Test.
Then, the Western Province pair of off-spinner Kelly Seymour and left-armer Grahame Chevalier operated together with limited success - most of the bowling damage was still done by the strike pair of Mike Procter and Peter Pollock.
It turned out to be Chevalier’s lone Test appearance, at the age of almost 33, while in Seymour’s case it was the last of his seven; John Traicos came into the mix for the second Test and stayed there for the remainder of that champagne series.
In post-isolation Tests at Newlands, the Proteas have inevitably fielded just one specialist slow bowler, with names like Omar Henry, Clive Eksteen, Nicky Boje, Paul Adams and more recently Harris coming firmly to mind.
Occasionally, depending on the era, one of them has been backed up in the spin department by a “batsman who tweaks a few” like Gary Kirsten or JP Duminy, but none has ever had the luxury in Cape Town of a genuine spinning partner at the other end.
Even at the time when Adams’s Test career overlapped with that of the 20-cap off-spinner Pat Symcox, they never played in tandem at Newlands (Symcox played no Tests at all at the venue).
The merits and demerits of both leg-spinner Tahir and left-arm exponent Harris have been debated regularly of late and do not need repeating here.
All I know is that one of them - smart money presently suggests it may be the more “containing” Harris - will miss out on Wednesday.
At least I think I do ...