Cape Town – Their recent habit has been to go batting-heavy into Test matches, but the Proteas may have to at least chew on the possibility of tampering with that formula for the first encounter with India at Mohali from Thursday (06:00 SA time).
The “seven batsmen” strategy took route in the Gary Kirsten tenure as head coach and has generally extended into Russell Domingo’s newer era as well.
But the strengthening smoke signals from the Subcontinent that middle-order batsman and useful off-spinner JP Duminy won’t be fit for the first Test creates a balance issue in the side.
Duminy is normally the credible “fifth” bowler, but in his likely absence, they will have to weigh up whether four specialist bowlers – with occasional stints of part-time back-up from Dean Elgar and Stiaan van Zyl – will be enough to do the 20-wickets job.
Three of those frontline bowlers are likely to be of the pace or seam variety, not always a sure-fire recipe for success in Indian conditions, thus leaving room for only one dedicated spinner.
Given suggestions that the host nation are trying to create particularly spin-friendly conditions at Mohali and may field as many as three spinners themselves, the Proteas could be coaxed into playing two – perhaps the more attack-minded Imran Tahir plus incumbent off-spinner Simon Harmer.
It appears India could be prepared to risk stationing their 31-year-old wicketkeeper Wriddhiman Saha as high as No 6 in the order at the expense of an extra batsman to help facilitate the multi-pronged spin assault.
Saha, who lived in the shadows of now-retired MS Dhoni for so long, has only previously played seven Test matches, with 284 runs to show at a humdrum average of 23.66, although his first-class average is much more encouraging at 44.49.
This brings into focus the Proteas’ own intended gloveman for the first Test, Dane Vilas, and whether he could similarly be entrusted with the No 6 berth to free up an additional bowling spot in the ranks.
Under such circumstances, it would leave Vernon Philander, an under-rated all-rounder, as the likely No 7 and Harmer, who can do a fair bit more than merely hold a bat, as the probable occupant of eight.
Still, it seems a particularly dangerous gamble, given that Cape Cobras representative Vilas has only one Test cap to his name -- and that was a rain-wrecked one against Bangladesh earlier this year when he didn’t even get the chance to take to the crease.
Like Saha, the 30-year-old has cut his teeth patiently for a long-time at first-class level and he has a double-century (203 in some seven hours when still a Lions player in 2009, against the Titans) to his name.
His average at that tier falls into the “decency benchmark” 40-plus category (just, at 40.78) and he showed some mettle, for the record, in making 54 in the Proteas’ two-day warm-up match against a Board President’s XI a few days ago.
But in that match, it was also clear – even though they required use of a nightwatchman, Harmer, at the end of day one – that their intention was to give a knock, in as close as possible to correct order, to all of their intended top seven for the first Test.
That seven included Temba Bavuma, suggesting he will instead assume Duminy’s berth at Mohali if the left-hander is ruled out, and then Vilas having the slightly less pressured batting position of No 7.
It means the Proteas will have to be right on the money in working out exactly which four top-line bowlers are the correct horses for this particular course ...
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