Cape Town – Few could begrudge the Proteas cricketers and management their couple of days of rest and relaxation in the agreeably laidback surrounds of Goa, coastal tourist magnet in western India.
They have put in a truly herculean effort in outplaying the host nation in successive Twenty20 and one-day international series, both contested in sometimes insufferable heat and humidity.
A tantalising, highly rare Indian “hat-trick” opportunity now awaits them, albeit that winning the four-Test portion of the tour was always considered main business and probably toughest prospect of the lot.
Hostilities begin at Mohali next Thursday, with South Africa seeking just a second ever series triumph in the extended format on those shores.
During the squad’s hard-earned hiatus, here are four issues I believe could be pivotal to the achievement of their Test-series goal ...
1 Will the captain get his form back?
The one quite puzzling, unusual missing link during the one-day portion of the tour was ... well, runs from Hashim Amla. The SA Test captain is hopefully storing up his best for the five-dayers, as his famed durability at the crease (he’s the kind of batsman who doesn’t stop when he gets to 100) could be a critical factor over the next few weeks. Never forget his utterly sensational showing in the last Test series in India, in 2010, when his scores in the shared two-Test series read: 253 not out, 114 and 123 not out. During the limited-overs leg, Amla has looked strangely at odds with himself organisationally, sometimes playing slashing drives at seamers without best footwork or being impatiently coaxed out of his crease by spinners with detrimental consequences. His top score over seven games (five ODI, two T20) thus far has been 37. That is very un-Amlaesque. Things can only change for the considerably better, you’d think.
2 Won’t Quinton de Kock’s absence be rued?
Quite possibly. Or put it this way: India are unlikely to be shedding tears over De Kock’s non-selection for the Test series. The young wicketkeeper/batsman smashed centuries in two of his last three knocks against them in the ODI series, and has now registered five in total against India. He has also, it must be added, taken some quite blinding catches as gloveman recently while standing back. In fairness to the selectors, it must be remembered that he was having a reasonably wretched old time with the blade across the formats on the earlier Bangladesh tour; some footwork issues were glaringly apparent then. So Dane Vilas was drafted in for a debut in the second Test at Dhaka – a rain-dogged match that did not see even one completed innings. It is only fair that he get a couple of proper, further chances. Make no mistake, though, at least some part of the determined 30-year-old will be looking over his shoulder during the coming Test combat, knowing that a resurgent De Kock is really not that far away, albeit back on his home continent ...
3 Can Kagiso Rabada possibly be left out?
It is not out of the question that the Proteas will be persuaded, if dusty pitch conditions suggest that is the right call, to field two specialist spinners during the series, as well as the relative part-timer and established batsman JP Duminy. In that case, there will be an even greater squeeze on the pace bowling spots. Three seems the very maximum tally for any of the Tests, and as we know the staple incumbents are Messrs Steyn, Morkel and Philander. The last-named player is probably under the most pressure, given his relative poverty in the wickets column over the last year and a half or thereabouts. His precariousness is compounded, however, by the spectacular strides in both maturity and effectiveness of Rabada. South Africa clearly have a pace-bowling gem in the making, and it is much more a question of “when” than “if” the 20-year-old makes a Test debut. A gut feel is that the Proteas will stick with their old firm initially in this series (Philander offers something with the bat, and remains economical and pressure-building with red ball) ... but Rabada is knocking at the door. Deafeningly!
4 Will Proteas, from choice of plenty, pick the correct spinner?
Simon Harmer, Dane Piedt, Imran Tahir ... South Africa are rarely blessed with spinning “quantity” in their squad for this series; more educative and decisive will be just how much quality comes to the fore. For that to occur, the Proteas’ brains trust are also going to be under great pressure to make sure they read the various pitches correctly and choose the correct man each time. (That is on the assumption that they do go just the one-specialist route, with back-up from occasional tweaking aides Duminy and Dean Elgar.) Harmer, the 26-year-old “offie”, is the man in possession, and with South Africa priding themselves in stability and consistency at Test level as much as they can, he may deemed the favourite to start in Mohali and try to cement his status for the rest of the combat. It would be nice in many ways to see more than just Harmer, of the trio, strut his stuff ... but we wouldn’t necessarily want to end the series thinking that our spinners are simply much of a muchness, would we?
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing