England’s balance riddle
Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - Whether Dale Steyn is passed fit or not, South Africa ought to sport more satisfactory depth in bowling when they take to the field for the second Test against England at Kingsmead on Saturday.
Latest intelligence suggests the Proteas are cautiously optimistic that their ace strike bowler will recover from his niggly hamstring problem in time, and make a decision around Wednesday.
Should he get the all-clear, the brains trust will have to mull over which of Friedel de Wet, Morne Morkel or Makhaya Ntini to leave out, because their intention will remain a three-man main strike force plus Paul Harris’s left-arm spin and a good prospect of a full role this time by the wily Jacques Kallis as fourth seamer - something that was sometimes sorely absent in the Centurion draw in gruelling heat.
It is England, instead, who face a more complex selection dilemma after being generally outplayed at SuperSport Park, despite some decent stints of own prowess, while employing only four specialist bowlers themselves.
The temptation to introduce, say, a left-arm swing option at the sultry KwaZulu-Natal coastal venue in the form of experienced Ryan Sidebottom, must be pretty powerful although all of their current attack - James Anderson, Graham Onions, Stuart Broad and Graeme Swann – could reasonably expect to retain their stations.
So Sidebottom’s possible addition to the attack should mean a batsman being sacrificed and that would almost certainly be the vulnerable Ian Bell, who scored five and two from the No 6 spot in the first Test, including getting out to a disastrous “leave” on middle-and-off against Harris in the first knock.
The question, then, is whether England will have the courage to promote wicketkeeper Matt Prior one rung up from No 7, where he also flopped - four and nought - at Centurion.
His Test batting average nevertheless remains a fairly compelling one after 24 Tests (41.56) and he was posted at No 6 for the majority of the victorious 2009 Ashes series.
A further incentive for the tourists, should they opt to weaken the specialist batting a little, is off-spinner Graeme Swann’s blossoming as a batsman at this level.
An extrovert character who transfers this approach to the crease, he is not your normal No 9 by any means - he registered his career-best score of 85 at SuperSport Park, has compiled 441 runs in only 16 Test innings and averages 36.75.
His tally includes successive knocks of 60-plus in the final two Ashes Tests at Headingley and the Oval, England’s last five-day contests prior to Centurion.
So the balance of their Durban team is a thorny issue for England, especially as some of the critics accompanying them on tour do believe their four-bowler formula is flawed.
Paul Weaver of the Guardian made the following point, for instance: “If you field only four bowlers, great care must be taken to ensure that their names are Holding, Roberts, Garner and Croft. The odd Warne or McGrath would also help.”
Yet a hunch says that England, who could also introduce a bits-and-pieces option at the expense of Bell in the form of Luke Wright, will retain a conservative route of only four frontline bowlers, as the cat-and-mouse characteristic of this intriguing series lingers …