SA in New Zealand
Proteas: Still some worry at top
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
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
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 ...
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