SA’s problematic passage to India

2015-08-04 18:13
Russell Domingo (Gallo Images)
Cape Town - It should have been the perfect “recce” for the Proteas’ longest ever Test tour of India in November and December.

Two five-dayers in nearby Bangladesh, with its not dissimilar conditions, seemed the perfect way to answer some pressing questions ahead of the formidable, four-Test Indian challenge.

Instead the world’s No 1-ranked side played out an inevitably tame 0-0 stalemate after monsoon rain wiped out some 60 percent of possible game-time in the mini-series.

So not only will Hashim Amla’s side visit India still dangerously undercooked in terms of Test-match play this year, but coach Russell Domingo and his lieutenants, through no fault of their own, have certain lingering dilemmas regarding both individuals and team balance.

Here are five I suggest they may still be grappling with:

Is Simon Harmer the right man as frontline spinner?

In short, the answer stays only “maybe”. That is because the 26-year-old never got the opportunity in Bangladesh to come into his own in a key, second-innings scenario when the spinner’s role alters from a generally run-containing requirement in the first knock to intended strike factor on a deteriorating track.

The tall offie continues to learn and develop at this level – he still only has three caps, remember – and seldom strayed much beyond three runs to the over in either Chittagong or Dhaka, which is reasonable enough.

His lone bowl in the second half, if you like, of a Test match came against West Indies on debut over New Year at Newlands, and he bagged 4/82, so purely on those grounds he probably justifies keeping his berth for the first Test against India at Mohali from November 5.

Is Stiaan van Zyl really suited to opening the batting?

Again, it will require longer to make a confident judgement ... but if anything, the left-hander enhanced his claims in Bangladesh after sharing half-century opening stands with Dean Elgar (one unbroken) in the Chittagong game.

That hardly suggests the pairing should suddenly be split up, so expect them to walk out together when the Proteas bat at Mohali.

Van Zyl did show pleasing ability in Bangladesh to spiritedly get after the new, hard ball, although the suitability of his technique at the top to seaming, faster pitches may only be seriously tested when a resurgent England visit our shores as headliners of the domestic summer.

Like Elgar, he seems well capable of playing some major innings in India given his qualities in application.

Who makes way when AB de Villiers comes back?

This is a toughie. De Villiers, South Africa’s main bums-on-seats guy, will thankfully return to his No 5 slot against India after taking paternity leave from the latest series.

But it then leaves the poser of which incumbent middle-order player is to be sacrificed, assuming he remains deployed as “batsman only” (see also next question!).

The omission is presumably going to have to be one of Temba Bavuma or JP Duminy, current occupants of slots five and six, and both have pros and cons.

Bavuma remains very inexperienced, which would obviously interest the Indians, but in his last innings (and his third Test match) he notched a maiden half-ton, knuckling down for almost 160 minutes as a bit of a wobbly took place around him in Chittagong.

It was an examination of temperament, and he ticked the box.

Duminy, meanwhile, remains a fickle customer at the crease in Tests and had the unfortunate fate of facing just one delivery in the Bangladesh series ... and getting out to it.

That failure helped drag his Test average down a tad further to 35.55, whilst his figure in Asia – a concern with an Indian tour next – is 21.44 from eight Tests in the region.

But we also know he can make big, vital runs, and something complicating any thought of dropping him is his increased competence as fifth bowler and second spinner: he has 14 wickets at 32 in Subcontinent conditions.

Duminy is still a not inconsequential “rebalancer” of the XI in this new age minus the all-round great Jacques Kallis.   

Who is the correct choice as wicketkeeper?

This brings De Villiers back into focus, and whether he might be prepared to resurrect his dual role as the gloveman.

He had given up the gloves last summer, when Quinton de Kock – then in slightly happier times performance-wise – was installed behind the Test stumps.

But then De Kock got injured in the first Test against West Indies at Centurion, and De Villiers returned to the responsibility for the remainder of that series, before the former stepped back into the role in Bangladesh with his senior team-mate absent.

De Kock is suffering prolonged batting woes in all formats and has since been demoted to the SA ‘A’ side to try to get his mojo back, and Dane Vilas earned a debut in Dhaka.

Alas, he is another new face not to receive a proper, educative “workout” as havoc-wreaking rain there prevented him from showing off his own batting credentials.

There is general instability and uncertainty regarding wicketkeeping for the Proteas, who on Tuesday debatably recalled the 36-year-old Morne van Wyk to both their ODI and T20 brews for New Zealand’s short, early spring visit.

Gloves in the Indian Tests? It’s a bit of a toss-up right now ... 

Is the “seven batsmen” formula going to keep working?

The Proteas have liked this recipe since the Gary Kirsten tenure as head coach; it has continued into the Domingo reign.

While it gives South Africa a particularly reassuring look on the batting front, and makes bowling them out twice a demanding task for opponents, it does mean a limit of four specialist bowlers.

Increasingly, there is an unhealthy reliance on Dale Steyn for regular success in the wickets column, especially on Subcontinent pitches less helpful to pacemen.

Whether the present Proteas attack (with a rookie spinner and both Messrs Philander and Morkel less than prolific in strike terms) has the oomph to knock over India’s renowned stroke-players twice in five days on their surfaces is a seriously debatable point.

Especially if De Villiers can be coaxed into taking back the gloves while still batting in the top five, it may be worth SA contemplating bringing Philander, an under-rated batsman, up to seven in India from his present No 8, and thus creating an extra bowling spot.

Philander, who is so much more suited to decks which seam around a bit, could then feel less pressured to take wickets and simply help build pressure through his renowned economy.

It would open up possibilities either for exciting young Kagiso Rabada to stiffen the pace arsenal, or for the Proteas to add a second specialist spinner in the India Tests ... a personal view is that “forgotten” leg-spinner Imran Tahir, warts and all, could still offer some breakthrough clout and X-factor even if he is vulnerable to occasional thumpings in the five-day landscape.

A personal wish, albeit this far out from it, would be for this sort of line-up for the first Test in Mohali: Van Zyl, Elgar, Du Plessis, Amla (captain), De Villiers (wkt), Duminy/Bavuma, Philander, Harmer, Steyn, Morkel, Tahir.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

Read more on:    proteas  |  cricket

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