Cape Town - It all looks quite peachy on paper.
Six Test matches, five victories, and the only loss coming in a dead-rubber situation.
That is Ottis Gibson’s record as South Africa’s head coach in longest-form cricket thus far, and it also seems a vindication of his clearly treasured principle of fielding a five-strong bowling arsenal at the expense of a seventh specialist batsman.
Yes, “six batsmen” seems to be working fine, thanks.
Or is it?
A policy which, I readily admit, I have enthusiastically backed personally to this juncture - in the absence of a true-blue, Kallis-like balancing all-rounder - it has paid dividends over the course of the trio of one-sided triumphs over Bangladesh and Zimbabwe, and then the pivotal Newlands and Centurion Tests against India which ensured an early Proteas kill in the three-Test series.
The lone blemish, of course, came in the controversial, low-scoring third Test against Virat Kohli’s men at the Wanderers on a pitch that periodically pushed the boundaries of suitability for a fair contest between bat and ball.
The Proteas lost at the Bullring by a pretty tight margin of 63 runs, and quite possibly denied a 3-0 sweep by a perplexing decision - in clearly lively, seaming and often gloomy conditions - to field as many as five pace bowlers.
Subsequent reports have suggested that some “influence” was forced on selection from boardroom level in the makeup of that XI: fifth seamer Andile Phehlukwayo only ended up delivering 10 overs throughout, whereas two knocks from a recognised, additional batsman in the challenging conditions might just have made a key difference in the outcome.
In retrospect, so painfully mismatched were the earlier Tests against the minnow countries that they really provided no useful evidence at all to justify whether six batsmen was a sustainable SA tactic against stronger foes further up the line.
Yet even in the first two, well-won Tests against co-superpower India, South Africa’s batting scorecards didn’t look too chipper, in truth: they were bowled out for 286 and 130 in Cape Town and 335 and 258 at Centurion.
They hardly suggest “batting juggernaut”, do they?
More recently, of course, the confidence levels of a few multi-format Proteas batsmen – young opener Aiden Markram a case in point – have hardly been helped by the unexpectedly grim SA struggle during the one-day portion of the Indian visit.
In a nutshell, no single frontline batsman wishing to be part of the fast-looming, four-Test home Australian series can be described as being in a rich vein of personal form; the general climate around SA batting right now seems one of skittishness and unreliability.
The situation is compounded by the race against time of several injured stalwarts to be fit for the start of the mouth-watering combat, and rightful associated concern that in some cases individuals will be short of priceless “middle” activity in the immediate lead-up.
Latest medical updates from Cricket South Africa suggest that although AB de Villiers – varied physical drawbacks of late – and Quinton de Kock ought to be in the mix from the first Test at Kingsmead on March 1, captain Faf du Plessis is a bit more touch and go for Durban.
Another very credible candidate for a recall to the batting plans, the resilient Temba Bavuma, is only anticipated to return to availability for the second Test onward.
There is a case for arguing that if Gibson and company have the satisfaction of knowing that all of their present, preferred top six (Dean Elgar, Markram, Hashim Amla, De Villiers, Du Plessis and wicketkeeper De Kock) can make the cut for game one against the Baggy Greens, then maybe the six-batsmen status quo can prevail.
A different way of slightly bolstering the lower order, in that scenario, could involve either Chris Morris or Phehlukwayo – both of them bowlers who are competent with the blade – being assigned the No 8 berth below tough-scrapping Vernon Philander at seven.
But my own instincts at this point?
The Proteas are going to have to do everything they can to bulk up their batting against Messrs Starc, Cummins, Hazlewood and Lyon, at the expense of the luxury of a fifth bowler for all or much of the series, with key bowler Philander thus taking guard at slightly more comfortable, workable No 8 for him.
Given the ongoing fitness uncertainty over one or two regulars, the three-cap, 25-year-old Theunis de Bruyn could well be close to adding to that tally against the fierce southern hemisphere rivals, and especially if a decision is made to bolster the batting department to seven specialists.
Recent performances at the crease have just been too flaky to suggest any other course of action …
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