Van Zyl stakes claim for opener

2014-12-18 21:15
Stiaan van Zyl (AFP)

Cape Town – You have to be careful not to jump the gun, but already discerning South African observers will be envisaging a crack in the not too distant future at a Test opening spot for Stiaan van Zyl.

The stylish left-hander from the Cobras, making the most of a rare vacancy a bit lower in the strong Proteas batting line-up as JP Duminy recovers from injury, on Thursday became the fifth South African and first at home to record a century on debut as his assertive, unbeaten 101 off 130 balls heaped further misery on a depleted and impotent West Indies attack in the first Test at Centurion.

Loss of the entire final session to rain slightly enhances the foot-sore tourists’ quest to avoid being bowled out twice in the remaining three days and earning a gritty draw.

Victory looks virtually out of the question for them after the ICC top-ranked side posted 552 for five declared, although smart money still points to a home triumph if their highly-touted seam battery makes better use of still-helpful conditions than the Caribbean outfit did.

Certainly Van Zyl was able to cash in on the enormous benefit of a 308-run stand being registered between brilliant stalwarts Hashim Amla (a third career double century for the meticulous, bearded accumulator) and AB de Villiers before he took guard.

He also looked a little rigid and uncertain for his first half-hour although that was possibly attributable to having to wait a tad short of a full day to finally get to the middle from the time he first put his pads on.

But once the 27-year-old had managed a couple of boundaries, his confidence and fluency simply swelled at a staggering rate of knots.

Some of his driving on the off-side looked like the authoritative work of a much more seasoned Test player.

In a relatively short, three-Test series, Van Zyl has presumably already done enough as the No 6 to book himself in for the rest of it, given that Duminy is likely to only return to action for the limited-overs portion of the West Indies agenda.

By the time the Proteas undertake five-day combat again, in Bangladesh in mid-2015, the established Duminy will require a spot back, so it would create a middle-order logjam.

But considering the otherwise smooth-firing team’s one known area of current instability – the opening partnership – Van Zyl seems an attractive candidate a little down the line (or maybe even sooner?) to further his national career in that fashion.

He has many of the technical skills and necessary obduracy to fulfil the role, especially as his preferred first-class position is at No 3 where he frequently confronts a whistling new ball anyway.

Van Zyl has already acknowledged in interviews that his best chance to settle into the Test XI once Duminy is back may come as an opener -- given present areas of strength and weakness in the overall line-up -- and is willing to take up the challenge if asked to do so.

Some semblance of a crisis is taking shape upfront for SA, with Dean Elgar yet to convincingly settle and the infinitely more experienced Alviro Petersen under special pressure given his unremarkable – at best – statistical returns for some time.

The Proteas last tasted proper success for the first wicket back in the shortened India home series last season, when now-retired Graeme Smith and Petersen notched century opening stands at both the Wanderers and Kingsmead.

Since then it has been mostly grim going, with opening stands averaging a lowly 25.4 for the last 13 Test innings and no further three-figure partnerships.

There are those who insist specialists are required at the top of the innings, but if batsmen with that supposed status are labouring then why not try to “manufacture” someone there?

South Africa have a pretty decent post-isolation track record at doing this: first there was Gary Kirsten, who some swore blind had too many technical weaknesses to prosper as an opener, either for Western Province or the national side.

Instead Kirsten, proving there is no substitute for a strong heart for the job, made 14 of his 21 Test centuries in an admirable 11-year career from the No 1 or 2 berths.

Later, middle-order batsman Neil McKenzie, after four years in the Test wilderness, had a healthy rebirth for a couple of years (2008-2009) as an opening batsman, getting three of his five SA  tons in that role.

Ashwell Prince was a fairly reluctant, short-lived convert to the front of the order but even he blasted 150 in maiden exposure to the position against Australia at Newlands in March 2009.

I have a powerful gut feel already that Stiaan van Zyl is going to be the next to get a stab at becoming one of those Test openers who are made rather than born.

And some of them, as we know, turn out to be rather good ...

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

Read more on:    proteas  |  stiaan van zyl  |  cape town  |  cricket

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