Cape Town – Mathematically still fairly secure at the top of
the pile, South Africa are nevertheless very close to a crossroads in terms of
the health of their Test line-up.
Some immediate “wake turbulence”, if you like, following the
rather sudden retirement from the format of Jacques Kallis, always seemed on
the cards ... yet the home-town aircraft got bumped around more nastily than was
expected in the first-Test hammering from the Australians at Centurion.
Whether a pretty rapid turnaround to game two of the
three-Test series at St George’s Park from Thursday (10:30) is a good or bad
thing from a Proteas point of view should be apparent reasonably early in the
Port Elizabeth fixture, but the overwhelming local hope will be that Graeme
Smith’s charges are chastened by what happened up north and ready to do their
customary thing of warming to a series the longer it goes on.
That warming needs to occur very smartly if they are to
actually win the series – remember, for all the imperious talk both in the
Aussie camp and media, the tourists are still ranked No 3 on the planet – though
the history books suggest that is too tall an order. (SA last won back-to-back
Tests within a specific home series against these foes in the unforgettable
A more realistic scenario, perhaps, is for the Proteas to
aspire at the very least not to lose in the Friendly City, where the pitch
could be the most benign of the series trio, and then target a levelling
victory at that favourite stamping ground of their, Newlands, where the strip may
seam handily for Dale Steyn and company without offering too much spitefulness
for Mitchell Johnson’s cruder form of assault.
First things first, however ... and getting the balance of
their team composition right for PE will be a vital element of South Africa’s
quest to stabilise themselves in the middle clash.
Even while Kallis was still an integral part of the mix, you
got the feeling sometimes that the Proteas were thwarted from achieving true
“legend” status by relying too heavily on certain individuals for consistent
excellence – I am thinking, particularly, Messrs Amla, Kallis, De Villiers,
Steyn and Philander – while too many of the rest performed only fitfully.
Perhaps it explains why several of South Africa’s series
triumphs of the past couple of years– glowing though they generally were in
manufacture – were the product of a “dig deep” characteristic and Smith’s
seasoned ability to pull key strings in leadership rather than non-stop,
Some structural weaknesses or near-weaknesses, I believe,
continue to stalk the Proteas, including doubts about Alviro Petersen’s ability
to fire regularly enough at the top of the order, JP Duminy’s middle-order
struggle to replicate his limited-overs enterprise and performance at the Test
crease, the long-time “stuck record” issue of the failure to unearth a
persuasively crafty spinner, and whether too much responsibility is placed on
Steyn and Philander to trouble the wickets column.
It is worth remembering that although beanpole Morne Morkel
has been part of the furniture for several years, we seem to be just inching
toward an unfortunate stage where it is worth asking: “Is what he actually
achieves on paper slipping behind what we know he can do, given his obvious
There are those who insist, and with some merit, that his
brand of danger is important in effectively teeing up wickets for his fellow
pacemen, but at the same time – and especially in an era when a fourth,
Kallis-like seamer is far from guaranteed in the XI – is he contributing enough
personally in the breakthroughs chore?
Unpalatable though it may seem to chew on, for he is a
popular figure, Morkel registered match figures of only 1/111 on a SuperSport
Park pitch characterised by its uneven bounce – you could say a Morkel
paradise? – and it has been 22 innings since he last achieved anything more
than a three-wicket haul.
Far more than some of us may seem to want him “out”, we simply
wish to see him more productive as a strike factor, that is all!
Just how the Proteas go about tweaking their brew in PE will
be engrossing to observe.
Selection boss Andrew Hudson seemed to hint earlier this
week that restoration of a seventh batsman is a strong likelihood – this writer
would endorse that, just for the record – but simultaneously indicated that
bowling might then be left in the hands of the regular pace trio plus Robin
Peterson’s left-arm spin.
Another school of thought advocates not playing Peterson at
all, since there are doubts around his suitability to both grab wickets and
hold up a game against these opponents, and installing Wayne Parnell for
fourth-seamer clout and left-arm variety into the bargain (that way the Proteas
could still employ Duminy and perhaps also Dean Elgar as slow bowling options).
When Warriors man Parnell last played a Sunfoil Series match
at St George’s Park, against the Titans just before Christmas, he was named
player of the match for his game haul of 8/102, so those statistics might just
help squeeze him in.
Whatever line-up they pin their faith on, the Proteas are a
team under intense scrutiny, cruel though it may seem while they still head the
international rankings after nearly two years.
A second gory loss on the trot and rather more wholesale
changes to the SA side would seem considerably less nutty or knee-jerk a plea.
The players will know that, won’t they?
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