Pakistan v SA
Elgar to open against India?
Dean Elgar (Gallo Images)
Cape Town - Alviro Petersen has been allowed to walk the tightrope of inconsistency for long enough ... it is probably time to try out a new partner for Graeme Smith at the top of the South African Test order.
The beneficiary should be Dean Elgar.
When you have already hugely proven customers like Hashim Amla, AB de Villiers and Smith himself playing major innings fairly regularly, it can mask shortcomings elsewhere.
A certain Jacques Kallis currently falls into that less desirable category, following his unusual lack of success in both home and away Test series against Pakistan during this calendar year –top score 50 at the Wanderers over the course of four personal matches against them and seven innings.
But he is one of the all-time greats of the game, and still averages above 55 in the format; it is at least reasonably safe to assume he will get his famous mojo back during the sadly reduced domestic summer of Test activity.
Another batsman in the No 1-ranked team’s midst for whom the lights have dimmed a little of late is middle-order customer Faf du Plessis, who began his Test career like a runaway train with 445 runs from his first seven knocks at a giddy 111.25.
Since then, any hopes that he will be some sort of “new Mike Hussey” have receded quite a bit, and he will be under scrutiny when India play their two Tests here in December at venues yet to be revealed – not just for whether the ball comes into any proximity with the zip of his pockets while in the field, either.
I would argue, nevertheless, that the opening department is the one requiring the most urgent attention ... or make that alteration.
This important combination is being hamstrung primarily by the ongoing under-delivery of the right-handed Petersen as partner of the national captain.
They are a useful foil for each other in the obvious “left-right” factor, which is unsettling to bowlers.
But that is not a good enough reason to persevere with any alliance: weight of runs together remains the primary issue.
Here Petersen has drifted, not for the first time in his 26-cap Test career, back into a pattern of mediocrity that, frankly, makes him a vulnerable link in this otherwise juggernaut team renowned for setting high standards.
It is a pity, because he is an enigmatic cricketer: occasionally he plays the type of innings that only makes you think he totally belongs in the five-day frame, like the anchoring 182 which constituted almost half of South Africa’s first-knock runs in the drawn second Test against England at Headingley last year.
But he also retains a penchant for getting out in his 20s quite a lot, just when you think he has safely negotiated the hard yards against the new ball.
Since his New Year century against New Zealand at Newlands, Petersen has had nine further Test innings, almost all of them against Pakistan (both home and away) and not featuring a score higher than 27.
This trot has done no favours to his Test average, which has slipped to 37.15 – still far from disgraceful, but somehow also not quite befitting a position of such responsibility for the world’s best side.
I believe the time is right, as the Proteas contemplate successive home summer series against India and Australia, to at least try to improve productivity up front.
The left-handed Elgar shapes up as the credible alternative: he has had nine Tests knocks so far but all but one of them have been in unfamiliar habitat at either No 6 or 7, where he is perhaps not the most obvious character to do a “push on” job when there is a good chance of solid foundations already having been laid to the total.
This may explain why he has really only come to light once, making a maiden unbeaten century against the Black Caps in Port Elizabeth last season.
Elgar is not quite the fish out of water someone like the famously obdurate Geoffrey Boycott, for instance, might have been had he been asked to take up a middle-order position in his Test career, but he is nevertheless also much more renowned for top-order comfort and durability.
The 26-year-old (if he did replace Petersen, who is nearly 33, he would simultaneously ease a slight Dads’ Army feel to the SA Test outfit) did get a stab at a higher post when he operated in Hashim Amla’s unusually vacant No 3 spot in the triumphant second Test against Pakistan at Dubai, although he fell for 23 after a solid enough start and an hour and a half at the crease.
But traditionally his best first-class performances have come as an opener, as evidence by his monumental nine-hour vigil for 268 – a career best -- for SA ‘A’ against their Australian counterparts in Pretoria in July.
Perhaps pertinently, Elgar’s first-class batting average is a shade under 44, which eclipses Petersen’s 39.42.
Andrew Hudson’s national selection panel are going to have to think long and hard about whether to persevere with Petersen against India.
If they do, it should be with an attached instruction that it is “shape up or ship out” time in the sadly only two-Test series, although a personal inclination would be not to delay with giving Elgar a run instead.
That said, I would also not preclude the possibility that Petersen claws back – again – to recapture his berth.
He is nothing if not a strong-willed, self-motivated character.
Just one mysteriously failing to truly convince in Tests after opportunities aplenty, alas ...*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing