Johannesburg - Proteas coach Ottis Gibson surprised all and sundry by setting up his team in the six batsmen and five bowlers split for the third and final Test against India this week.
This was despite the fact that the Proteas ordered a pitch that batsmen routinely complain about.
Many thought the conditions would convince the Proteas’ brains trust to replace spinner Keshav Maharaj with an extra batsman.
But Gibson clearly had other ideas, loading his side with a quintet of fast bowlers, including Andile Phehlukwayo, and confirming the idea that the six-five split is here to stay, regardless of the conditions.
Gibson has been using the split since the beginning of his tenure.
Former Proteas coach Eric Simons said Gibson’s decision was probably influenced by a combination of factors.
“It’s difficult to comment from the outside, but I suppose that, in some way, it shows how people underestimated the value of a Jacques Kallis, who could bat and be the fourth seamer,” he said.
“The history of the bowlers also came into consideration. We’ve had Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander and Morné Morkel break down in the past, so that could get you down to only three bowlers.”
Simon said he was encouraged by the hint of aggression in Gibson’s approach, which is markedly different from the old trend of having the safety of an extra batsman.
“South Africa has always done well when there was a tomorrow. But when you took away the tomorrow, they weren’t that good.
“There is positive intent. To win a test, you must take 20 wickets and trust your top six.”
That said, none of the “trusted” top six has been able to score a century in a series where India captain Virat Kohli was the only batsman to hit the three-digit mark.
In addition, neither of the teams has been able to score 400 runs.
Many have wondered how much of that is down to both teams going into games at least one batsman light, and how much of it was due to conditions that have favoured bowlers or made scoring runs difficult, as was the case in Centurion.
“I’d put it down to the conditions and the way the players utilised them,” Simons said.
“You can have favourable conditions, but you still need to use them. The bowlers did well, but the batsmen struggled.”
Simons said picking six batsmen almost always had two effects on the team.
“It either fires up the top six or causes them to crumble under the pressure.
“I don’t believe it’s a conscious decision to put pressure on the top six. It’s just how the coach wants his team to play.
“What’s important is how your number seven and eight play because you need a number seven who can support the top six.
“That means Vernon and Andile are important players. So far, Vernon has done well in that role.”
Some argue that the reason for the ongoing six versus seven batsmen debate is because of Kallis’ retirement, which left a huge void in the Proteas that needed two men to fill.
“The way the Proteas have structured their team is how they have to do it until they find another Kallis,” said Simons.
“I watched Kallis when he went to his first Western Province match. I thought he bowled very well for a 17-year-old, but then someone told me he was an even better batsman.
“I’m yet to see a guy with that ability. Lions all-rounder Wiaan Mulder has done well, but I haven’t seen another Kallis.”
The big question is whether the Proteas will continue with their approach when Australia – who are familiar with local conditions and have thrived in them – arrive for their four-test series in South Africa in March.
“I reckon they’ll stick to their plan. It’s the right balance. They must just find a way to make it work,” Simons said.