Cape Town – The strong success at The Oval in recent years
of England’s off-spinner Graeme Swann is just one key reason why South Africa
would probably be ill-advised to fall into the “all-seam” trap in terms of the
composition of their team for the first Test at the venue from Thursday.
Considering the eternally wet English weather this season, it
is probably not out of the question that the Proteas will at least contemplate
omitting attacking leg-spinner Imran Tahir and even fast-tracking Albie Morkel
– the all-rounder who only joined the squad a few days ago after Marchant de
Lange’s withdrawal – to a spot in the XI.
Admittedly such a prospect seems a long shot, but if the
meteorological outlook remains suitably grim (rain is predicted on all of the
first three days at least) South Africa would not be the first team in Test
history, nor be the last, to belatedly sacrifice their spinner with a view to
shoring up other departments.
The older of the Morkel brothers may have only ever played
one prior Test match – the dead-rubber victory by South Africa over Australia
at Newlands in March 2009 – but he scored a half-century in the Proteas’ lone,
juggernaut innings of 651.
It is the extra security he offers in batting depth, as well
as his ability to contribute with the ball as a potential fifth seamer, that
may tempt the brains trust to prefer him to Tahir if it looks as though
spinners’ roles will be curtailed in this contest.
Under those circumstances, South Africa would still have the
reasonably useful fare of middle-order batsman JP Duminy by way of part-time off-spin
... not to mention a healthily shrinking tail with Morkel stationed at No 8,
probably immediately beneath the little Cape Cobras left-hander in the order.
Listen to Kallis speak here:
It is the kind of team which, on paper at any rate, would
look reasonably well equipped to do a first-Test “holding” kind of job.
There is a case for saying, after all, that the tourists may
be most vulnerable to defeat in the first encounter, given their less than
prolific lead-up programme, and only get better as the infuriatingly short
series progresses – so a stalemate in the first Test might represent a decent
enough start in bigger-picture terms.
Fielding a batting-heavy kind of XI like the one suggested
would go a fair way, it could be argued, to securing at least a draw at The
Oval, while still not being notably short on bowling resources.
There is no guarantee, of course, that the Proteas are even
chewing on such a course of action, although it may be significant that the
option has not wholly escaped the eyes of the British media.
The Daily Mail’s astute cricket scribe Lawrence Booth,
perhaps with an inkling of something, saw fit to write this week: “(The
Proteas) must avoid the mistake of replacing Imran Tahir with Albie Morkel at
The Oval in the event of more wet weather.”
But he does make a valid point in his suggestion,
considering that England’s own spinning specialist, Swann, has enjoyed some
near-riotous success at this very venue in recent Test matches and the pitch,
no longer as fast as it used to be, has always tended to favour the trade the
longer matches grind on.
Swann has bagged no fewer than 24 wickets in his – and
England’s – last three Tests at The Oval, including a haul of six for 106 in
India’s followed-on second innings in the 2011 match there (nine in the match),
when England won to secure a 4-0 series sweep.
The larger-than-life character got seven wickets in the
previous game against Pakistan (2010), as well as four scalps in each innings
of the Ashes Test at the ground in 2009.
So any thought of leaving out Tahir needs to be thoroughly
weighed against that backdrop; the Pakistan-born leggie tends to be especially
good at winkling out tail-enders and although England’s lower order is notably
strong, his unorthodoxy could come in very handy in dislodging the last few
The other point of interest surrounding the Proteas’
strategy will be whether AB de Villiers, now burdened with the cares of
wicketkeeping as well, will remain in his favoured No 5 slot in the batting
order or be given more of an “Adam Gilchrist” sort of character at No 6 or 7.
There may be a case for at least contemplating splitting up
the two middle-order left-handers, Duminy and Jacques Rudolph, by getting De
Villiers to bat between them, at six.
But it is also an issue they may simply play by ear,
depending on scoreboard circumstance.
The Proteas, if they stick to a likely, sensible Plan A,
ought then to enter the first Test with the following XI: Graeme Smith (capt),
Alviro Petersen, Hashim Amla, Jacques Kallis, AB de Villiers, Jacques Rudolph,
JP Duminy, Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander, Morne Morkel, Imran Tahir.
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