Johannesburg - If the Proteas’ victorious tour of Australia has shown us anything, it is that while the bowlers can be trusted to take 20 wickets in a Test, the batsmen can’t be relied on to consistently score 400 in at least one of the innings in a match.
In the five digs they have had from the three Tests against the Aussies, the Proteas scored 242, 540/8 declared, 326, 259/9 declared and 250.
For a team that has invested in seven batsmen – a situation that sometimes puts strain on their bowlers, as was the case with Dale Steyn breaking down in Perth – that is nowhere near trustworthy enough.
Ordinarily, it’s a situation they would merely look to improve against a Sri Lankan bowling attack probably tailor-made for embellishing batting averages, but the pending return of captain and best batsman AB de Villiers means a choice has to be made that includes leaving someone out of the starting XI.
Opener Stephen Cook, a gatherer as opposed to a scorer of runs, was looking good for the axe until he scratched around for 144 of those – almost half of South Africa’s 309 in the whole match – in the Adelaide Test.
Had he not made his belated claim for retention, Cook would have made way and the options would have included shifting the batting order around to accommodate De Villiers.
Said musical chairs might have included, among others, moving Quinton de Kock to the top of the batting order, handing the keeper’s gloves to De Villiers and convincing the selectors to leave the captaincy with Faf du Plessis.
But Cook did score runs and former Proteas batsman Ashwell Prince, who was also national team selector, said he was glad he was no longer in a position to make such decisions.
“Usually what happens is that the most out-of-form guy makes way when you’ve got someone like AB coming back,” Prince said.
“If Cook  hadn’t scored runs, he would have been that guy.
“If they leave him out, he can argue his case because he’s scored about the same number of runs as Dean Elgar , Temba Bavuma  and JP Duminy .
“There are four or five guys who have made more or less the same number of runs. It’s going to be a tough call for the selectors. I don’t know how to resolve it. I’m glad I’m not a selector any more.”
Looking at the idea to hand the gloves to De Villiers, Prince said it could be a solution with a proviso.
“Perhaps asking AB to be a team man and keep wicket until a long-term solution was found would be the way to go. But you want him to come out and say he’ll take it on. Also, they’re talking about him being captain again, which means batting, keeping and leading might be a bit too much responsibility.”
Other players who could theoretically come into contention for the axe are Du Plessis and Duminy. The former only got into the team due to De Villiers’ injury, but there isn’t a South African who wants him out of the team, or not captaining the side, after his leadership in Australia.
Duminy made a majestic century in Perth, but went back to looking sensational without troubling the scorers, but you get the impression the selectors want to ride his rich vein of form for all it’s worth.
Prince came up with another option altogether, one that involved moving Bavuma to open the batting.
“If they do decide that one of the openers has to go, they could get Bavuma to open the batting because he’s technically well equipped – he’s got the technique and a good temperament.”
Asked if the opening pair did not need to be split up anyway as they were both essentially grafters, the slowness of whose run-making put pressure on the rest of the batting order, Prince said: “I don’t necessarily buy into that. Test match cricket is Test match cricket. I’d rather have the team with a 100-run opening stand with no loss at 2.5 runs an over than 120/3.
“There is no rush because the guys coming in later are free scorers. Not everyone has the talent of a De Kock and everyone makes runs their own way. The point is to make runs, not how.”
But as loath as he is to make a call himself on what should happen, Prince gave some insight into how convener of selectors Linda Zondi and company’s minds work: “I suspect the person to miss out would be the person least likely to play a longer role in the team.
“They’ll probably go with the person who is oldest in the team and who has a shorter future in the team than the others.”
If that’s true, it would be a tough call on Cook, who turned 34 a few days ago.