Cape Town – The fitness or otherwise of
Dale Steyn for the first Test against England in Durban from Boxing Day could
have a major influence on whether South Africa opt to field a specialist
spinner or not.
Uncertainty continues to surround the
32-year-old’s recovery from a nagging groin injury, but if he does get the
all-clear for Kingsmead, the Proteas are sure to be tempted by the idea of
putting out a four-strong pace attack.
Steyn, still the world’s top-ranked Test
bowler although injuries are beginning to worryingly curtail his activity, is a
must to spearhead the attack if he gets the green light -- his battle with the
next best-rated fast bowler James Anderson (No 3 behind Indian spin maestro
Ravichandran Ashwin) will be one of individual duels of the summer.
Incumbent quickies Morne Morkel and Kyle
Abbott are in bullish form at present, whilst the Proteas are also seriously
keen to unleash young Kagiso Rabada – rested for the dead-rubber final Test in
India after carrying a heavy load for several weeks – for the first time in
domestic five-day conditions.
It will be a headache deciding which of the
quartet to leave out if all of them are fit and firing for the opener against
England ... and the remedy may well be to field them en masse in a concerted
“chin music” sort of assault on the tourists straight away.
But that would also mean South Africa
riskily entering a Durban Test without a specialist spinner, although slightly
out-of-sorts batsmen JP Duminy – his place under increasing scrutiny -- and
Dean Elgar offer useful part-time aid.
My own suspicion is that only if Steyn is
ruled out, emphatically clearing the way for the other three to be the
three-pronged seam battery, will a specialist slow bowler be near-guaranteed to
crack the nod.
There are times at Kingsmead, especially
when it is damp, humid and overcast, when you can certainly get away with an
all-pace formula, but the surface there can also become flat and batting-friendly
when the sun shines remorselessly and quicker men can fall prey to wilting in
the challenging heat.
Then you do need a decent enough spinner to
perform, at the very least, a solid holding job at one end.
The last two Tests at the venue also serve
as reminders that proper spinners come in handy there.
When the last five-dayer was staged at
Kingsmead in December 2013 – Jacques Kallis’s emotional farewell to Test
cricket – both Ravindra Jadeja (India) and South Africa’s first-choice spinner
at the time, Robin Peterson, had some influence.
The Proteas won the second of a
controversially shortened, two-Test series by 10 wickets (to ensure a 1-0 final
outcome) but Jadeja, a scourge of South Africa much more recently, claimed
6/138 in the host nation’s massive first-knock total of 500 all out, whilst
Peterson was in business with 4/74 in India’s second innings after a wicketless
The previous time the Proteas played a Test
in Durban (December 2011), they were upset by 208 runs by Sri Lanka in the
middle game of a three-Test series, with the visitors’ left-arm spinner Rangana
Herath earning the man-of-the-match bouquet for his 4/49 and 5/79.
So there is statistical ammunition aplenty for
South Africa to feel a specialist tweaker (probably one of Dane Piedt or Simon
Harmer) is necessary, but I believe it will much more easily occur if the Phalaborwa
Express stays frustratingly dormant in a siding ...
our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing