Australia in SA

Proteas: Shape up or ship out!

2014-02-19 13:11
Proteas (AFP)

Cape Town – Mathematically still fairly secure at the top of the pile, South Africa are nevertheless very close to a crossroads in terms of the health of their Test line-up.

Some immediate “wake turbulence”, if you like, following the rather sudden retirement from the format of Jacques Kallis, always seemed on the cards ... yet the home-town aircraft got bumped around more nastily than was expected in the first-Test hammering from the Australians at Centurion.

Whether a pretty rapid turnaround to game two of the three-Test series at St George’s Park from Thursday (10:30) is a good or bad thing from a Proteas point of view should be apparent reasonably early in the Port Elizabeth fixture, but the overwhelming local hope will be that Graeme Smith’s charges are chastened by what happened up north and ready to do their customary thing of warming to a series the longer it goes on.

That warming needs to occur very smartly if they are to actually win the series – remember, for all the imperious talk both in the Aussie camp and media, the tourists are still ranked No 3 on the planet – though the history books suggest that is too tall an order. (SA last won back-to-back Tests within a specific home series against these foes in the unforgettable 1969/70 season!)

A more realistic scenario, perhaps, is for the Proteas to aspire at the very least not to lose in the Friendly City, where the pitch could be the most benign of the series trio, and then target a levelling victory at that favourite stamping ground of their, Newlands, where the strip may seam handily for Dale Steyn and company without offering too much spitefulness for Mitchell Johnson’s cruder form of assault.

First things first, however ... and getting the balance of their team composition right for PE will be a vital element of South Africa’s quest to stabilise themselves in the middle clash.

Even while Kallis was still an integral part of the mix, you got the feeling sometimes that the Proteas were thwarted from achieving true “legend” status by relying too heavily on certain individuals for consistent excellence – I am thinking, particularly, Messrs Amla, Kallis, De Villiers, Steyn and Philander – while too many of the rest performed only fitfully.

Perhaps it explains why several of South Africa’s series triumphs of the past couple of years– glowing though they generally were in manufacture – were the product of a “dig deep” characteristic and Smith’s seasoned ability to pull key strings in leadership rather than non-stop, obvious supremacy.

Some structural weaknesses or near-weaknesses, I believe, continue to stalk the Proteas, including doubts about Alviro Petersen’s ability to fire regularly enough at the top of the order, JP Duminy’s middle-order struggle to replicate his limited-overs enterprise and performance at the Test crease, the long-time “stuck record” issue of the failure to unearth a persuasively crafty spinner, and whether too much responsibility is placed on Steyn and Philander to trouble the wickets column.

It is worth remembering that although beanpole Morne Morkel has been part of the furniture for several years, we seem to be just inching toward an unfortunate stage where it is worth asking: “Is what he actually achieves on paper slipping behind what we know he can do, given his obvious physical gifts?”

There are those who insist, and with some merit, that his brand of danger is important in effectively teeing up wickets for his fellow pacemen, but at the same time – and especially in an era when a fourth, Kallis-like seamer is far from guaranteed in the XI – is he contributing enough personally in the breakthroughs chore?

Unpalatable though it may seem to chew on, for he is a popular figure, Morkel registered match figures of only 1/111 on a SuperSport Park pitch characterised by its uneven bounce – you could say a Morkel paradise? – and it has been 22 innings since he last achieved anything more than a three-wicket haul.

Far more than some of us may seem to want him “out”, we simply wish to see him more productive as a strike factor, that is all!

Just how the Proteas go about tweaking their brew in PE will be engrossing to observe.

Selection boss Andrew Hudson seemed to hint earlier this week that restoration of a seventh batsman is a strong likelihood – this writer would endorse that, just for the record – but simultaneously indicated that bowling might then be left in the hands of the regular pace trio plus Robin Peterson’s left-arm spin.

Another school of thought advocates not playing Peterson at all, since there are doubts around his suitability to both grab wickets and hold up a game against these opponents, and installing Wayne Parnell for fourth-seamer clout and left-arm variety into the bargain (that way the Proteas could still employ Duminy and perhaps also Dean Elgar as slow bowling options).

When Warriors man Parnell last played a Sunfoil Series match at St George’s Park, against the Titans just before Christmas, he was named player of the match for his game haul of 8/102, so those statistics might just help squeeze him in.

Whatever line-up they pin their faith on, the Proteas are a team under intense scrutiny, cruel though it may seem while they still head the international rankings after nearly two years.

A second gory loss on the trot and rather more wholesale changes to the SA side would seem considerably less nutty or knee-jerk a plea.

The players will know that, won’t they?

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

Read more on:    proteas  |  ozinsa  |  dale steyn  |  cricket

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