SA field 'dream' top six
Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - The Proteas, finally, find themselves in a position to field the specialist batting order they are hoping will provide them with stability and success in the Test arena over the next couple of years at least.
Tuesday’s apparent green light for relative veteran Jacques Kallis to play as a batsman only in the first Test against England at SuperSport Park from Wednesday means they will almost certainly put out a top six comprising, in order, Graeme Smith (captain), Ashwell Prince, Hashim Amla, Kallis, AB de Villiers and JP Duminy.
It is well documented that Prince, playing only his second Test since the decision late last season to regard him as an opener henceforth, would ideally prefer a spot in the middle order.
But the national brains trust, by and large, see this formula as the best way to accommodate the sextet they believe represent the best batsmen available to South Africa at present. And squaring up to England at Centurion will be their first exposure as a collective.
You have to go back to the lead-up to the first Test against Australia at Perth in 2008/09 to see how the seeds for it were sown.
Then, of course, Prince - still earmarked for No 5 at the time -- cracked a thumb against a delivery from Makhaya Ntini only a day before hostilities in the historic series began, meaning an eleventh-hour debut for Duminy.
That, too, turned into a highly significant event because the diminutive left-hander went on to become one of the headline acts of the summer Down Under.
During that series and the early part of the return one in South Africa a few weeks later, Smith’s then-partner up front, Neil McKenzie, experienced a progressive decline in personal fortune and was dropped for the final Test at Newlands (the last the Proteas have played).
But Smith was absent this time because of injury sustained in the Durban Test and, with Prince effectively recalled in a new role as replacement for McKenzie, the Dolphins’ young Imraan Khan stood in temporarily for the leader.
The Centurion showdown, then, represents the first opportunity to see the currently most desired Proteas top six in action as a unit.
Most of their places appear pretty secure, with widespread consensus that Prince is too good a player not to make the transition successfully to opener - he got off to a rip-roaring start there by lashing 150 in a juggernaut, sole South African innings of 651 against the Aussies in Cape Town, where the tourists were thrashed by an innings after winning the first two Tests.
Smith, Amla, Kallis and De Villiers basically pick themselves, based on form and reputation over the past 18 months and more, leaving only Duminy with some question marks which he may well eliminate rapidly anyway.
There have been some concerns that the massively talented 25-year-old has been found out to some degree against the short ball dug into the ribcage, and he has only passed 50 once in his last seven Test innings after his superlative “arrival” at the WACA and then MCG.
A counter argument would be that he still averages 48.62 after six Tests - all against Australia - and no batsman is going to be the finished article so early in his five-day career.
There is nobody from the SuperSport Series truly bashing down the door to break up the national top-six alliance, although Alviro Petersen has been introduced to the broader Test squad of late, McKenzie is still a factor at first-class level (640 runs at 64.00 thus far in the season) and Dean Elgar and the only just 20-year-old Rilee Rossouw are candidates for the future.
But Centurion is a golden opportunity for South Africa’s incumbent batsmen to show their collective, highly-touted mettle, especially as the Proteas’ bowling resources are limited for this Test by Kallis’s likely non-involvement as a seam option.
Prince is a particularly comforting infusion after playing no part in South Africa’s disappointingly patchy one-day international showings this summer.
In a burgeoning Test career more generally - average 47.29 at present -- he has a really terrific record at SuperSport Park: 497 runs at a weighty 82.83 in six Tests, including three centuries.
*Rob Houwing will be attending the Centurion Test and provide comment and analysis for Sport24 readers after each day’s play.