SA in New Zealand

Proteas: Still some worry at top

2012-03-13 11:16
Alviro Petersen (AFP)

Cape Town – Probably without going out of their way to emphasise it to the player himself at this stage, the Proteas’ brains trust will be reasonably anxious that Alviro Petersen comes to the run-scoring party over the course of the last two Tests in New Zealand.

They have the far from inconsequential matter of a mid-year tour of ICC No 1-ranked England to think about already, and would doubtless like to feel confident that the pair currently entrusted with opening the batting, Petersen and captain Graeme Smith, will also be the men best suited to deal with this important requirement in English conditions and against their frisky attack.

Smith’s slot is not under threat: apart from opening the New Zealand series with respective knocks of 53 and 115, the seasoned left-hander has a happy knack of leading from the front to a massive degree in England, where he averages 72.20 from nine Tests, including two double centuries in 2003 and a series-tilting 154 not out at Edgbaston in 2008.

But over the past couple of years there has been a niggly, ongoing issue around the other opening position, ever since the ageing Neil McKenzie (who did a surprisingly good, essentially makeshift job there for some time) was marginalised.

With decidedly varying success, Ashwell Prince, Jacques Rudolph and Petersen (the last-named player in two phases) have subsequently been roped into the responsibility.

Petersen had a year in the Test wilderness after failing to build to any great extent on his highly promising debut century against India at Kolkata in February 2010.

Even as he was temporarily discarded, a feeling clearly persisted in the minds of people like national selection chief Andrew Hudson and new coach Gary Kirsten that the Highveld Lions stalwart can play a bit, as they say, and they welcomed him back pretty confidently for the decisive third Test against Sri Lanka at Newlands over New Year.

He promptly scored 109 in the Proteas’ first innings, as Rudolph shifted down to a middle-order position where he has since shone.

That was just two Tests back, so it is hardly as if alarm bells need to start ringing just because Petersen registered only 11 and 25 (the second knock characterised by rather too many loose strokes for purists’ liking) in the drawn Dunedin encounter.

Even if the player labours again in the second Test at Hamilton, starting on Thursday (Wednesday 23:30 for SA purposes), I am pretty sure he will be persevered with for the remainder of the series anyway – both Kirsten and Hudson have shown a firm penchant for encouraging stability and the confidence they hope this breeds, by extension, in the troops.

There is, after all, no additional specialist opening batsman in the SA squad, with JP Duminy the spare blade-wielding resource, and clearly more suited to a role in the middle order.

For all his known areas of relative vulnerability – against off-spin and perhaps really scorching pace, neither offered up to any marked extent by New Zealand – Duminy is a gifted enough player who you do sense could wriggle his way back into the Test side at some stage.

Keep in mind that the diminutive Cape Cobras customer offers off-spinning options of his own, which could be a very nice foil on occasions for leg-spinner Imran Tahir.

For instance, a slightly “creative” school of thought might have it that the best six batsmen on paper for the Proteas, in the event that doubts do linger around Smith’s partner, may well be Smith, Hashim Amla, Jacques Kallis, AB de Villiers, Rudolph and Duminy, with one of these – the increasingly accomplished-against-the-new-ball Amla, for example? – at least a mild consideration up front in Tests.

That said, there remains a mightily strong case for not tampering with the existing, usually rock-like Nos 3-5 of Amla, Kallis and De Villiers.

So if Petersen does produce a “big one” in the remainder of the combat against the Black Caps, it will come as a relief to the Proteas’ strategists as they train their thoughts to England.

He currently averages 35.90 after 11 Tests, which falls into that iffy category which tends to interest opponents tooth-combing the weaknesses of their enemy.

At times he has looked emphatically – both in body language and stroke-play -- as though he utterly belongs in the Test arena; at others he perplexingly leaves room for critics to chew on possible alternatives.

Petersen admitted in a media briefing on Tuesday: “I would have liked more runs (in Dunedin) ... but my first game is out of the way in New Zealand; I know more now (about the local environment).”

Asked whether he had possibly got a little too cavalier during the second innings, he replied: “I was a bit positive ... we wanted to wipe out the deficit and I wanted to dominate the bowlers.

“I was pretty happy with the way I struck the ball (while) adapting to conditions.”

With a bit of luck, Petersen will get the opportunity for the remainder of the series to bed himself down once more in the team’s plans, rather than spark thoughts of another change of linen ...

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

Read more on:    sa in new zealand  |  alviro petersen
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