Cape Town – If South Africa’s personnel are building a
necessary head of steam for the fast-nearing home Test series against New
Zealand, perhaps some of us didn’t get our letters of notice in the post.
If anything, the portents for the Proteas to retain their
proud record of never have lost any of 14 series – home or away – to the Black
Caps look only more ominous and fragile as the days drift by.
And there aren’t many of those to play with … it is nine, to
be precise, until day one of the first Test at Kingsmead, a maiden
August-staged five-day encounter in this country.
Uncertainty over quite how the pitch will play so early in
the Durban spring is just one reason to suggest the Kiwis will be the
beneficiaries of some “levelling” factors, at the very least.
But they are almost certainly going to enter the two-match
hostilities better prepped, given that their senior squad have just come off a
satisfying 2-0 outcome under the Zimbabwean sun, with plenty of their batsmen
feasting rather royally and bowlers getting good, honest mileage in the legs.
As for the Proteas, Russell Domingo and company in the
coaching staff are slowly welcoming back players to the 15-strong selected SA
group from various corners of the planet and vastly differing codes of combat,
with a ton of intense lead-up work to contemplate.
On a wing and a prayer, at least initially? It is difficult
to view things any other way for the host nation, who will be in the highly
unusual position anyway of starting the series presently ranked one spot lower,
in sixth, than their foes on the ICC Test rankings.
Mustering fresh cohesion after a lengthy layoff in the
format may take time, and there isn’t much of that to play with in a mere
two-Test series; it is possible that certain highly-touted individuals may have
to play out of their skins to ensure the Proteas get a busy season of the game’s
most traditional fare off to a winning start.
Perhaps the biggest snag is that a SA ‘A’ team laden with
senior national team figures has just suffered a nasty comeuppance in a
two-match unofficial Test series against Australian counterparts in Brisbane
and Townsville respectively.
Almost half of the troops likely to feature against the
Black Caps took part in the exercise – either one or both clashes – but despite
that apparent advantage, were thrashed on both occasions by a raw Aussie side
that boasted a mere three Test caps, and all to Glenn Maxwell.
All of Dean Elgar (average 33.25), Stiaan van Zyl (27.75)
and Stephen Cook (14.50) registered one innings of 50-plus, but that was about
it as they generally failed to meet expectations.
Temba Bavuma had an even leaner time (51 runs across four
knocks at 12.75), although he had the excuse of arriving Down Under
particularly undercooked out of our deep mid-winter – he attended the annual
CSA Awards banquet before being rushed onto a long-haul plane the next day and
having desperately little time to acclimatise.
There were other woes afflicting players potentially
earmarked for activity at Kingsmead shortly: the pace bowlers were no great
shakes, although Vernon Philander had a disciplined, fair enough appearance
statistically in a lone gallop in the first encounter.
The jury will also remain out around Dane Piedt, the
off-spinner who is the only slow specialist included in the squad for the first
Test against the New Zealanders; he bagged 6/262 over the two games in
Australia but at a swollen average of almost 44 and slightly leaky economy rate
of well over four runs to the over.
Prize top-order scalps seemed especially hard to come by for
Piedt although, in fairness, he is still learning in varying conditions across
the planet at his trade and only has five prior SA caps; he at least deserves
the Black Caps series to try to make his spot that bit more secure.
It isn’t just the returning SA ‘A’ players who provide some
concerns, looking to Kingsmead.
In the absence of the 8,074-run Test acumen of injured
captain AB de Villiers (Faf du Plessis is already pencilled to deputise for the
moment), the other long-time rock of the batting order, Hashim Amla, will carry
heavy responsibility – but the “Incredible Hash” is in the extremely rare
position of not having played any first-class cricket since the final Test
against England at Centurion in late January.
Similarly, the now 33-year-old strike legend Dale Steyn has
not turned out in that format for even longer, going back to his injury
breakdown in the Boxing Day Test, coincidentally also in the looming location
He has had a diet almost entirely of Twenty20 cricket since
his return from the crocked list, so just how ready his limbs and lungs –
though he is an exemplary athlete by reputation -- will be to suddenly toil
away for a possible 20-25 overs a day is anybody’s guess.
Good luck fitting all the scattered pieces snugly together
rather quickly, Proteas …
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