Cape Town – When are the world’s top-ranked Test outfit going to demonstrate that pedigree at the very top of their batting order?
Patience is beginning to wear thin among Proteas supporters and observers; the selectors and coaching staff have seemed that bit more sympathetic to this point but even they are bound to be slowly succumbing to restlessness.
In certain respects, you have to say that the current opening firm of Alviro Petersen and Dean Elgar had acceptable enough performances in the first-Test caning of West Indies at Centurion.
They were obliged to bat when conditions were their most challenging on a damp opening morning, and the very fact that they posted a half-century opening stand in roughly the first hour was a mini-achievement.
Indeed, Elgar then chipped in usefully with his part-time spin whilst Petersen’s slip catching standards throughout the game – especially welcome as SA regroup in that department after some heavyweight retirements -- were from the top drawer.
But “mini” is nevertheless not an irrelevant word because, in short, South Africa really need their openers to be going “maxi” rather more often than they do – and both men fell in their mid-twenties after doing some initial hard yards.
The low-productivity situation was applicable even to the closing months of the otherwise hugely-proven Graeme Smith’s tenure up front (which ended when he called it quits during the critical Newlands Test against Australia last season) and under-performance in the berths at the top has spilled into the Petersen-Elgar alliance.
It is frustrating because both men have shown that they can play at the highest level, but regular competence is desperately sought in both cases -- inconsistency is rightly deemed a dirty word for players tasked with taking strike at the front of the order.
Petersen, particularly, is on very thin ice as he has had a lot longer than his less experienced, left-handed ally (34 Tests to Elgar’s 13) to genuinely establish himself and simply hasn’t, which goes a long way to explaining an iffy average of 35.68 in an otherwise near-juggernaut team in most facets.
Making another of those infernal “20s or 30s” at SuperSport Park means he has now got out as many as 27 times in 61 innings in that terrain: in percentage terms, 44.26.
Kicking on is clearly an unyielding problem for him, even as some of his five centuries – the last of those 25 knocks back – have been suitably commanding, which only adds to the puzzlement around him.
Seven years Petersen’s junior at 27, Elgar warrants a longer crack at properly settling in one of the berths, as he seeks to necessarily hike an average presently of 31.33.
In his favour for the Port Elizabeth second Test against the Windies from Boxing Day, Elgar has a tidy little record at St George’s Park: it is where he made his maiden century against New Zealand in January 2013, while he also notched 83 there in the first innings of the victory over the Aussies last summer.
It is probably right that Petersen feels more of the heat to perform in the game where South Africa will seek an early series result their way, although something in his favour is that afore-mentioned greater experience he sports. You can partly understand the brains trust’s rationale for badly wanting the right-hander to prosper in an era now minus the 117-Test, 9,265-run Smith at the front of the order.
Ditching Petersen, like it or not, would give the Proteas an unavoidably wet-behind-the-ears feel to their opening pair, with Elgar then the slightly tenuous senior figure and a new rookie tasked with finding his feet quite speedily.
But a fresh face being introduced to one of the slots will become that bit more likely for the Newlands series-ender – possibly a dead-rubber affair, which would make it an especially agreeable chance for experimentation – if South Africa’s first wicket underwhelms yet again in the Friendly City.
If he doesn’t crack the nod as quickly as the PE Test, middle-order batsman Temba Bavuma would be a hot bet for a debut in Cape Town if the Proteas are 2-0 to the good, by extension facilitating an elevation to opener for the technically accomplished Stiaan van Zyl, whom many feel can and should make the adjustment to No 1 or 2.
As previously reported on Sport24, an average opening stand of 25 for the last 13 Test innings by South Africa is a jarring statistic for the supposedly premier five-day side on the planet, isn’t it?
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing