Cape Town - Theunis de Bruyn’s dramatic arrival as a Test-quality player in Colombo after a few false starts helps clear a lot of the structural predicament around the Proteas’ XI in the format.
In short, the immediate, logical way ahead for South Africa - still dogged by the absence of a true all-rounder for balance purposes - seems to stick with the “seven-four” split between specialist batsmen and frontline bowlers, regardless of opposition or landscape.
That was what they reverted to for the second Test in their seriously forgettable series in Sri Lanka, duly conceded by 199 runs on Monday’s fourth day to ensure a 2-0 sweep for the home side.
The Proteas made a shockingly naïve, ill-judged decision to field only one specialist spinner on the turning Sinhalese Sports Club track, but the one thing their brains trust got right was bolstering the batting line-up by summoning hitherto yo-yo man De Bruyn after the particularly abject earlier surrender (with a six-five team construction) in Galle.
Their reward from the young right-hander was a maiden Test century off his blade in the belatedly more gutsy and durable second knock of 290, easily the Proteas’ best total of an otherwise feeble series in batting terms.
The knock was a breath of fresh air both technically and mentally and, as commentator and former SA captain Shaun Pollock noted, “a good way to earn the respect of the dressing room” considering the array of woes in the rest of the batting arsenal over the past fortnight.
Temba Bavuma, among several figures under mounting scrutiny in the SA top six or seven, gave De Bruyn staunch, enterprising assistance in his own innings of 63 - they were responsible for the Proteas’ only century partnership of the series - to re-establish his own credentials as a gritty fighter.
Bavuma has sometimes been touted optimistically as the solution to the pivotal No 4 berth, but perhaps it was significant that his heartening resistance in Colombo came from a less-pressured slot a bit lower than that.
Having faced 232 balls in his calm and intelligent vigil, and in his first Subcontinent appearance, De Bruyn could claim the lengthiest SA innings of the series by some distance, captain Faf du Plessis the next in line through the 88 balls he negotiated for 49 runs in the first Test.
As Kepler Wessels pointed out, De Bruyn has “definitely laid a claim to the No 3 position” for South Africa.
The one thing the Sri Lankan series - and a few before it, really, even including some stirring triumphs - confirmed was that the SA batting is just too fragile at present to risk limiting it to six staffers, especially given the enduring aftershocks of AB de Villiers’ retirement.
And De Bruyn must now, at last, get a suitably generous opportunity to establish himself following five previous, sporadic appearances for the national cause … meaning a major role for him in the respective home summer series against Pakistan and the revenge opportunity against the ‘Lankans.
The former Knights captain, who rejoins the powerhouse Titans this season, first earned his national call-up on the impressive weight of franchise runs on South African pitches, so there must be a decent chance he will only go from strength to strength when Pakistan and Sri Lanka leave their particular comfort zones to tour here.
It is intriguing to observe the similarity, at this fledgling stage of his Test career, between De Bruyn and a certain Jacques Kallis.
A much-trumpeted rookie at the time, Kallis, like the current man, found his earliest Test opportunities at the crease tough and unforgiving, even as he at least had the benefit of a more consistent vote of selection confidence.
It took Kallis, who retired a true great of the game, 10 previously lightweight innings to bank his first century, and De Bruyn has now done so in 12.
But there are further, even closer comparisons: both players notched exactly 101 in achieving the landmark (Kallis against Australia at Melbourne, 1997), and both got to three figures in the particularly tricky landscape of the fourth innings of a Test.
First 10 Kallis Test innings (234 runs, average 23.4): 1, 7, 6, 39, 0, 2, 2, 61, 15, 101
First 12 De Bruyn Test innings (234 runs, average 21.27): 0, 12, 48, 1, 11, 0, 6, 36, 1, 15*, 3, 101
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