Cape Town – Just how much further Sri Lanka can extend play
on day five of the first Test could have a bearing on the composition of South
Africa’s attack for the quick follow-up encounter at Newlands over New Year.
The tourists still have their backs to the wall at St
George’s Park, with five wickets left and a further 248 runs required for what
would be an improbable, fairy-tale victory.
But a key development on the fourth day’s play was the
greater resolve and durability they showed in their second turn at the crease,
which has already seen them negotiate 83 overs – an improvement of almost 20 on
their first-knock effort and still half of their wickets to play with even if
most of them are of the tail-end type.
As a result, and on a pitch that has not yet demonstrated
the kind of deterioration and unpredictability you might have expected by now,
the Proteas’ brains trust are bound to be thinking already about tweaking their
strategy for the Cape Town Test, which has a turnaround time of only two full
If they can wrap up the innings with suitably swift, brutal
efficiency – ideally in the first session on Friday – then they will feel that
bit more at ease, presumably, about fielding the same four specialist bowlers
But if the ‘Lankans can drag things out a fair bit beyond
that, bearing in mind that their combative captain Angelo Mathews is still at
the crease with a half-century to his name, then workload issues could come
into play from a SA perspective.
The worrisome thought would exist that the three frontline
seamers especially – Vernon Philander, Kyle Abbott and Kagiso Rabada – might be
a little footsore in the event that Faf du Plessis loses the toss at Newlands
and they are ordered straight back into the field again.
The fastest factor of the trio, Rabada, has been notably
down on pace in the ongoing Test match and well below his bristling best
generally, even if you cannot realistically go full tilt all the time on a
surface like the one in the Friendly City.
He has bowled more overs than any other paceman since the
start of the Proteas’ Test season just after mid-year, and arguably gets too
much exposure to limited-overs fare in national colours as well, so those who
care about his long-term prospects are entitled to feel a little concerned about
burnout risk even at his young age of 21.
Some of the SuperSport commentators began debating during
Thursday’s play whether “KG” should potentially be rested for the middle Test
of the series, allowing him to come out really firing at his home ground of the
Wanderers, with its healthy carry, in the final clash from January 12.
That would automatically open the door for left-arm seamer
Wayne Parnell to return to the Test cause at Newlands, as he is the designated
“spare” paceman in the present SA squad and would offer a certain, welcome
freshness if included over New Year.
But there is another possible option if the Proteas,
understandably, are reluctant to side-line the gifted Rabada: it would involve
sacrificing a batsman, shifting in-form Quinton de Kock up from seven to six,
and then fielding a five-man attack instead of the recently in-vogue quartet.
It is worth at least chewing on, as having men like
Philander, Parnell and Keshav Maharaj, all of whom sport fair credentials with
the blade, operating between berths seven and nine would not necessarily
translate to problems in batting depth.
Here’s an extra argument in favour of that formula: does
this Sri Lankan attack, based on evidence from Port Elizabeth, really look
capable of doing a 20-wickets job on the Proteas on South African soil,
regardless of whether the hosts play six frontline batsmen or seven?
But perhaps that is putting the cart before the horse
anyway; there is still a job to be done on Friday before the Newlands Test is
And if the Proteas make pleasingly quick work of things on
day five, the likelihood instead of a “same XI” over New Year will only soar …
*Follow our chief
writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing