Proteas: De Bruyn reopens ‘makeshift’ debate

2017-03-25 10:31
Theunis de Bruyn (Getty Images)
Cape Town - Will Theunis de Bruyn simply be another ill-fated Stiaan van Zyl? Or will he eventually adapt successfully like a Neil McKenzie?

That is the million-dollar question for the Proteas after they chose to blood Theunis de Bruyn - sadly his initial return on debut was a three-delivery, caught-at-slip duck - as an opening batsman in the decisive third and final Test against New Zealand in Hamilton on Saturday.

A weather-plagued first day ended prematurely after only 41 overs were possible with the tourists, 1-0 up in the series, a jittery 123 for four despite a welcome first half-century in five Test knocks from stalwart No 3 Hashim Amla.

It was stop-start stuff - always an unenviable event for the batting side - under grey skies on a pitch difficult to gauge for a variety of reasons, although that prolific winner of the toss, Faf du Plessis, seemed reasonably happy in his television explanation not to have to bat last.

It is suspected that the strip will only slow progressively, and offer spin and some reverse swing at advanced stages as well.

Consistency, or rather conspicuous lack of it, by the South African specialist batting unit has been a problem in an otherwise admirably smooth-firing team for some time, and the brains trust could hardly be blamed for deciding before this critical contest that some kind of tangible, remedial step was necessary.

Hence the drafting in of 24-year-old De Bruyn, despite his relative fish-out-of-water status at the very front of the order, as Stephen Cook became the lone sacrifice from the XI who clinched the second Test at the Basin Reserve.

Whilst debate will rightly rage around the decision to effectively try to “manufacture” once again a new opening partner for the more embedded Dean Elgar, a solid counter-argument would be that Cook needed putting out of his recent misery in spite of his specialist credentials at the top.

Frankly on this tour, in cool and often seaming conditions that do not best suit the cricketing veteran from Johannesburg, Cook (17 runs in four innings) has only really looked like getting out even in the short stints he’s actually lasted anyway, his technical issues making him seem just about as much a non-opener as anybody else in the squad.

Of course that won’t preclude a great number of purists from contending, with no lack of merit, that it is playing with fire to suddenly entrust a non-specialist with the task of opening at the highest level.

They would be able to point conveniently to the still pretty recent - and failed - experiment with Stiaan van Zyl upfront.

Now lost to the national cause as a Kolpak player on a three-year deal with Sussex, the left-hander began his Test career with some aplomb in the middle order, but then floundered - admittedly sometimes in controversially poor Indian pitch conditions - as an opener, registering 156 runs in 11 innings at a flimsy average of 15.6.

But then there are the intriguing cases of players who actually show they can make the adjustment to the top of the order from slightly lower stations; present Proteas batting coach Neil McKenzie is a prime example.

Coming back in early 2008 from a near four-year cold into Test cricket after quite lengthy deployment in the SA middle order, the right-hander was asked to form a daring alliance with captain Graeme Smith as an opening pair - and McKenzie ended up having a notably pleasing Indian summer in the format, if you like, in that capacity.

Especially prolific on the Subcontinent, he nevertheless showed that he could prosper in the different challenges posed in a country like England, where he averaged nearly 50 during a famous 2008 series triumph.

You might say there is a certain significance to the fact that England is the current Proteas team’s next destination in the five-day arena, a four-Test series in July and August.

One slightly hard-handed spar at an early delivery outside off-stump - his fate in Hamilton on Saturday - isn’t yet evidence that the rookie De Bruyn will not cut it at the top; specialist openers nick off in that fashion often enough too.

But whether or not he stays Elgar’s partner (there are also cases for adaptation to the chore by SA incumbents like Quinton de Kock or Temba Bavuma), the Knights player should now, in line with pleasing recent policy by the selectors and coaches, be given a fair opportunity to establish himself in Test cricket.

He averages a promising shade under 50 in first-class cricket and plays many of his strokes with textbook correctness and sometimes withering authority.

It is whether or not the 34-year-old Cook actually cracks the nod for the broad squad for the Basil D’Oliveira Trophy in a few months’ time that becomes an interesting issue from here …

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

Read more on:    proteas  |  theunis de bruyn  |  cricket


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