Johannesburg - A couple of days ago, I was asked during a podcast what changes I would make to the Proteas side currently playing against England in the second of four tests in light of their 211-run defeat in the first.
An unspoken definition of a keyboard warrior is that they spend their lives making up lists of teams that will never play on any given Saturday, so off I went with my changes.
I’d move Quinton de Kock all the way up the order to open; shunt Heino Kuhn down to seven and give him the wicketkeeper’s gloves; drop Theunis de Bruyn, in spite of his gutsy 48 at Lord’s, for returning skipper Faf du Plessis; and replace Kagiso Rabada with Chris Morris.
This would have meant JP Duminy, whose consistent underachievement in the middle order has finally emerged from under the radar, retained his place. My thinking was that the Proteas’ retaliation to the first test defeat should be based on compromise and consolidation.
In that scenario, three things would happen.
De Kock would bat higher like everyone says he should, however short-term the solution; Duminy stays there as an experienced batsman and part-time spinner (a poor man’s Moeen Ali, if you will) that one hopes Du Plessis will again bring out the best in; and Morris brings not only good pace and bounce, but also great catching and the all-too important lower order batting to counter England’s.
But by the time the second test began, the Proteas had dropped Duminy and the unlucky De Bruyn, and replaced Rabada with Duanne Olivier. Other than prove beyond a shadow of doubt that I’m no selector, the decision spoke volumes about the thinking in the camp.
The first thing that catches the eye is that the decisions were as obvious as they were ruthless: while not rewarded for showing more fight than Duminy has shown in most of his career in the first test, De Bruyn still took one for the team, while a strike bowler such as Rabada was replaced by another one in Olivier.
This was also an aggressive and proactive response to the first test loss in that, instead of covering their bases by having too many bits-and-pieces players, they have trusted their squad players to do what it was they were selected to do.
The trust bit is emphasised by the fact that, while Olivier had only played one test before the current one – against a gun-shy Sri Lanka on a lively Wanderers surface earlier this year – he is being backed to do what he was selected for after taking 52 wickets on the domestic scene.
All told, there seems to have been clarity of thought in the selectors and Du Plessis’ minds about the response, with none of the sentimentality that has clouded rationality at times in the past when it came to putting teams together.
Also, and this is important in the debate about whether AB de Villiers should continue as one-day international captain, the team and the thinking within it is less skittish with Du Plessis around.
The benefits may not necessarily show themselves in a win in this test, or – in a team boasting three out and out rookies – indeed in this series. But the encouraging thing is that the Proteas again feel like a team on the move and not one of compromise.
The conundrum for most observers must be the difficulty to reconcile the side that carried all before it from July last year to April, and the team whose wheels have spectacularly come off in the past two months.
While the formats may not have been the same, clearly there can be a psychological carry-over, if the tentative first test performance is anything to go by. But the question to ask is if the Proteas really can have become such a bad team in such a short space of time.
I suspect part of the answer to that comes from understanding that, when a team embarks on a new culture, there will be times when it bumps its head and goes back to what it knows. So, for the umpteenth time, here we go again.
Follow me on Twitter @Simxabanisa