Proteas in Australia
Tahir omission was odd move
Imran Tahir (Gallo Images)
Cape Town – There was a time when the South African Test team was widely branded as “too predictable”.
Things have changed a bit for the better on that score in the last couple of years anyway, but on Friday even the Australians would probably have been greatly flummoxed by the Proteas’ unorthodox decision to alter what had been a consistently winning formula in England (no changes to the XI, series-long) and introduce an extra paceman to their mix at the expense of regular leg-spinner Imran Tahir at the Gabba in Brisbane.
Typically of the wretched luck and penchant for freak occurrence that is part and parcel of cricket’s fabric, the decision may just come to be proved as having backfired, given the post-play warm-down misfortune that struck partial all-rounder JP Duminy, reportedly involving a ruptured Achilles tendon and possible six months of inactivity as a result.
On the plus side, in some respects, we will get to monitor with interest the extent to which hefty Cape Cobras stalwart Rory Kleinveldt transfers his admirable first-class record into the Test arena, where the tourists got off to a near-flier at the crease on slightly-curtailed day one by amassing a threatening 255 for two.
Some of the South African television commentators were curiously suggesting that Kleinveldt, 29, may provide some sort of holding role – not ordinarily his function or special hallmark, it must be said – in the Proteas’ five-strong seam battery.
That role, most of the time, is fulfilled by a specialist spinner, at least until more advanced stages of Test matches when slow bowlers can come increasingly into their own as strike factors.
It can also be tricky for a captain to actually find gainful employ for all the quickies when you have so many of them at your disposal; that will be something for Graeme Smith to slowly begin chewing on.
When you aren’t at the heart of the changing room, it is difficult to know what exactly influences pre-game decisions over personnel – there have been some inevitable whispers that perhaps the ageing Jacques Kallis is not feeling the happiest of bunnies, in physical terms, for bowling right now and Kleinveldt thus provided additional insurance in that department.
If that is the case, though, the great right-hander seemed notably unimpeded in his sometimes watchful, sometimes seriously muscular unbeaten innings of 84.
Like the admirably unerring Hashim Amla (90 not out), yet another century seems there for the taking for him, although you would expect the Baggy Greens to be a little more frisky on Saturday with the second new ball after collectively struggling to muster fullest speed and hostility with the first ... and possibly copping a suitable earful for it.
Amla, who duly went past the 5000-run personal landmark and became the second fastest South African to do so after Herschelle Gibbs in innings terms, has the additional incentive of completing a memorable “hat-trick” of tons against these prestigious opponents, as he got successive ones in the two Test matches on our soil last summer.
But back to the Tahir leave-out: his unexpected absence from the brew somehow only looked more glaring once it became known that the Proteas had opted for first strike – we can certainly have no immediate beef over that particular decision! – and there is thus a strong chance of the Aussies batting last.
So far, it looks as though seam bowling is going to be hard work on this track, though it may quicken up for a while and you must also never pass judgement until “the other lot” have had their turn to charge in on it.
But if the fast men on both sides are going to find it tough going making major breakthroughs, South Africa’s sidelining of Tahir may come into increasingly sharp focus.
Whilst the Gabba may traditionally be a venue favouring seam and shock bowling, it also has a strong reputation for being receptive to the spin trade; Australia’s legendary leggie Shane Warne flourished in Brisbane every bit as much as he did at various other grounds worldwide, enjoying the extra bit of bounce often on offer.
Tahir, as we know, is making only moderate progress thus far in Test cricket, though he has infectious enthusiasm, a fairly broad bag of delivery tricks and a tendency to knock over tail-enders with some stealth.
The Gabba just seemed potentially a good place for him, whatever the concerns – evidenced again, it must be said, in the Sydney limb-loosener against Australia ‘A’ – about his excessive leakage of runs.
Given the Proteas’ statement-making start to this series in batting terms, maybe they will not come to rue his omission in the slightest, especially if their revered pace merchants live up to their reputations in this important first contest.
But the possibility that they will, similarly cannot just be brushed beneath the carpet.
The South African team, let’s face it, has been so widely lauded in recent, mostly highly successful matches for its wonderful balance. Suddenly it does look just a little lopsided in the heavy stocking of seamers.
Still, even if Tahir sitting idly in the pavilion does become problematic, it will be important not to hurl protesting eggs on the grounds of the Proteas suddenly having no credible spinner at all for the remainder of the Brisbane encounter.
Until the Duminy twist that nobody could have foreseen, the little left-handed batsman’s occasional off-spin was clearly going to be earmarked as an essential balancer after the move to overlook Tahir.
There has long been a school of thought that Duminy’s second trade is continually under-rated, and this match might just have been an engrossing opportunity for him to get a rare, significant tally of overs under his belt.
He has only ever bowled more than 20 overs over the course of a single innings in a Test once – the ill-fated one against England at Kingsmead in December 2009 – although significantly on that occasion he also recorded his best figures to this day of three for 89.
More customarily, Duminy has tended to get only short, often end-of-session bursts of bowling activity, and been very much “second spinner” behind a Paul Harris or, more recently, a Tahir.
And sadly now we also won’t get to see played out Kepler Wessels’s cheeky suggestion that Duminy may actually be a better offie than Australia’s specialist Nathan Lyon ...
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