Cape Town - It looks increasingly as if Stiaan van Zyl is in it for a long haul as opening batsman for the South African Test side.
By not naming any “spare” opener in the 15-strong party for the four Tests in India during November and December, the selection panel now chaired by Linda Zondi have expressed healthy confidence in the ability of the left-hander from the Cape Cobras to settle into one of the berths.
He will partner the more senior Dean Elgar again - their third match as a pairing - at the top of the order when the No 1-ranked Proteas begin the series in Mohali on November 5, and there will have to be a significant slump from either batsman if the firm is to be broken up before hostilities end at Delhi from December 3.
Such an event would also require a reshuffle, as all of the other batsmen in the squad are more familiar to roles outside of the top two.
AB de Villiers has fair enough experience of doing the job in the five-day landscape, but he was last engaged for specialist purposes there against Pakistan in Port Elizabeth in January 2007 and is very settled these days as a prolific run-scorer at No 5.
It looks as though middle-order man Temba Bavuma, who has had four Tests so far and begun to show promise, will become the lone “reserve” batsman on the tour now that De Villiers is restored to duty after paternity leave during the rain-marred Bangladesh mini-series.
Bavuma’s best chance of playing will probably be if De Villiers – albeit unlikely – agrees to take the wicketkeeping gloves again (meaning dedicated gloveman Dane Vilas sits out) and SA wish to still pursue a “seven batsmen” formula.
But the one-cap Vilas is likely to be asked, at least initially, to take up residence behind the stumps and occupy the No 7 spot in the order, leaving a top six of Elgar, Van Zyl, Faf du Plessis, captain Hashim Amla, De Villiers and JP Duminy.
Van Zyl, who turns 28 later this month, posted scores of 34 and 33 not out – and opening stands of 58 and an unbroken 61 with Elgar – in the first Test against Bangladesh at Chittagong, before the second was so badly weather-affected that SA didn’t even get to the crease once.
That was his fourth of five appearances thus far for the Proteas, but first in which he had opened the batting and it didn’t amount to a bad start in that role, especially as it was also in subcontinent conditions.
Clearly he is seen as the immediate future in one of the front-two berths, in a period when South Africa continue to adjust to life after the likes of Graeme Smith and Alviro Petersen.
When the Proteas tackled Bangladesh in the tamely shared series, Reeza Hendricks was part of the squad but the Knights opener did not get to make his debut, and now he effectively makes way in batting terms for the welcome return of De Villiers.
Given the unusually lengthy duration of the tour, I had fancied the Proteas would opt for a squad of 16, which might then have left room for Hendricks to tag along again and be available should a need arise at the top.
That said, there is no special reason to suggest the Elgar-Van Zyl partnership will be anything but productive – both are patient, scrapping batsmen with the ability to play major innings, especially on less lively surfaces.
The other changes revealed on Thursday saw the ousting of Quinton de Kock and Aaron Phangiso, and recall of two spinners in the shape of Dane Piedt and Imran Tahir – both sensible inclusions in a healthy arsenal of slow options.
Proteas Test squad:
Hashim Amla (Cape Cobras, captain), AB de Villiers (Titans, vice-captain), Temba Bavuma (Highveld Lions), JP Duminy (Cape Cobras), Faf du Plessis (Titans), Dean Elgar (Titans), Simon Harmer (Warriors), Imran Tahir (Dolphins), Morne Morkel (Titans), Vernon Philander (Cape Cobras), Dane Piedt (Cape Cobras), Kagiso Rabada (Highveld Lions), Dale Steyn (Cape Cobras), Stiaan van Zyl (Cape Cobras), Dane Vilas (Cape Cobras)
India v South Africa Test itinerary:
November 5-9, 1st Test, Mohali
November 14-18, 2nd Test, Bangalore
November 25-29, 3rd Test, Nagpur
December 3-7, 4th Test, Delhi
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