Cape Town – The feeling-out Test has come and gone without
much … well, feeling out.
South Africa and New Zealand are really none the wiser about
each other after the 450 potential overs at their disposal in the first of two
encounters, at Kingsmead, ended up being fractionally fewer than 100 due to
much-discussed, weather-related intrusions.
It was a tame stalemate in every sense, as the Proteas had
posted an indifferent first innings total and the Black Caps were in some early
doo-doo, two down after a dozen overs, in reply before the deflating
abandonment of three full days’ play at the back end.
So the slate is clean
going into what has become a one-Test battle to determine which way – if any –
the short series goes, beginning at SuperSport Park on Saturday.
Right now, mercifully, the forecast suggests positively
glorious, warm weather in the vicinity of Centurion for the duration of the
But there have also been some reported warnings from the
local ground-staff that a pitch with good carry and movement may be beyond
their preparation capability given the early-spring scheduling.
Strips on the Highveld only really tend to quicken up from
October or November onward when the summer sun has become suitably intense to
aid their firmness and bounce; this clash obviously occurs well short of that
calendar mark being reached, despite the promise of mostly cloudless skies.
So something of a back-breaker for the faster bowlers could
be on the cards, with the ball perhaps “creeping” more frequently than it takes
off … and that should be the cue for the Proteas’ planners to at least
contemplate the possibility of rebalancing the XI.
They stuck to their quite long-favoured “seven batsmen, four
bowlers” formula in Durban, but there was enough swing in the limited playing
time, especially when it was damp and cloudy, to suggest that a three-man pace
attack – Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander and Kagiso Rabada – supplemented by
off-spinner Dane Piedt might have been enough to achieve the all-important 20-wickets
job if given the fullest opportunity there.
But now the hosts are under even fiercer pressure to ensure
that they secure the series: nil-nil would have a negligible impact, at best,
on their desperate bid to climb back up the rankings from a current,
unpalatable seventh (the Black Caps are fifth).
For all the penetrative promise
shown by Steyn and Philander in their opening – and sadly only – spells at
Kingsmead, both remain well short of recent “legs time” in extended forms of
cricket and their five-day durability on
a likely slow, hard-toil pitch is a bit of an early-season unknown.
Under such circumstances, the
Proteas might be ill-advised to simply keep faith in their Durban line-up en masse for this follow-up encounter in
They will have a long, proper look
at the surface on offer over the next couple of days, but it might yet be an
inspiring move to sacrifice a batsman – JP Duminy would probably be the most at
risk – and have Quinton de Kock, well capable of major scores if he avoids
being too impulsive, shift upward to No 6.
That would facilitate the addition
at No 7 of a bowling all-rounder, either of Chris Morris or Wayne Parnell, to
allow for a more intense bowling blitz on the Kiwis if wickets do look like
being relatively slow and irregular to come by.
I sometimes can’t help thinking of
the seven-four split as a sort of “safety valve” against defeat more than it is
a statement of intent to press boldly for victory.
Proteas fans won’t necessarily desire
safety in the Centurion Test.
After a sequence of nine failures
to win a Test match of consequence (if you exclude the consolation dead-rubber
victory over England at the very same SuperSport Park late last season) they badly
want success …
*Follow our chief
writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing