Cape Town – Some Test-match selections are tough because of an embarrassment of riches, others due to limited options.
The latter phenomenon may be at play to a slightly bigger degree when South Africa assemble what they believe to be their best and most balanced arsenal for the first of four Tests against India at Mohali from Thursday.
It is less to do with a lack of quality in their travelling party than it is with present snags on the injury front: both batsman and occasional off-spinner JP Duminy and fast bowler Morne Morkel are reportedly struggling against time to be available for selection.
Particularly in the case of the former, it causes instability because of his dual usefulness to the cause; apart from his middle-order run-making potential, he often doubles as the second spinner if the Proteas opt to field only one specialist in that area.
But if Duminy doesn’t recover sufficiently from the laceration to his bowling hand suffered during the prior one-day series, coach Russell Domingo and his closest aides may be reluctant to lump on opening batsman Dean Elgar – appreciably more of a part-timer at his second trade than Duminy is -- the extra burden of “promotion” to chief back-up for a main spinner from Thursday.
The situation is complicated by the fact that the tourists can’t exactly boast that their top tweaker is of proven Warne or Muralitharan class: there is relatively little to separate any of Simon Harmer, who is the incumbent, or additional candidates Imran Tahir or Dane Piedt.
If they decide they will require two slow-bowling specialists at Mohali, rather than have the feisty Elgar try to do some sort of meaningful “holding” job with his left-arm darts, then they will compromise their fast-bowling department as there would probably only be room for a pair of quickies, regardless of whether or not the beanpole Morkel is in the frame.
Traditionally, the world’s No 1-ranked side like to field at least three pacemen and smart money suggests they will at least start this series in that mode, even if the pitch looks suspiciously like a real “crumbler” more conducive to slow fare.
On the assumption that neither of Duminy or Morkel are fit, the visitors are likely to pin their faith in a structure of six outright batsmen – Temba Bavuma thus directly replacing Duminy for his fifth cap – a specialist wicketkeeper at No 7 (Dane Vilas) and then four designated bowlers.
Joining the established Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander on the seam-battery front would be debutant Kagiso Rabada, a popular and deserving choice if he does crack the nod given his huge strides in limited-overs colours for the country – something that has only continued in India thus far.
The Proteas like stability in their Test combinations, so that would probably see Harmer backed as the lone frontline spinner if they employ the argument that he is going to have to be played out of his spot rather than summarily ditched for someone else at this stage.
The quartet of bowlers would then get occasional assistance from both Elgar and his partner at the top of the order, Stiaan van Zyl, who bowls naggingly accurate little medium-pacers.
Yes, South Africa might look a little light under such circumstances for spinning oomph and depth, but on the positive side might expect certain members of their quicker resources to rise to the occasion with reverse swing and the like as the pitch deteriorates.
Here is a predicted SA side, if Duminy and Morkel are duly ruled out: Stiaan van Zyl, Dean Elgar, Faf du Plessis, Hashim Amla (capt), AB de Villiers, Temba Bavuma, Dane Vilas, Vernon Philander, Simon Harmer, Dale Steyn, Kagiso Rabada.
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