Proteas: Eccentric selection, BUT …

2018-07-20 16:23
Ottis Gibson (Gallo Images)

Cape Town – South Africa’s brains trust have set themselves up for the great risk of ridicule over their selection policy in the pivotal second Test against Sri Lanka.

But let’s play fair, shall we?

At least by the close of play on day one at Colombo’s SSC ground, they warranted a stay of execution.

Having lost a second toss in a row – one no less important, really, than in badly-surrendered game one at Galle – curtailing the host nation to 277 for nine at stumps looks, on paper, like a rosy enough outcome for the Proteas.

Certain Sri Lankan sages, at least based on the television commentary, seemed to think somewhere in the region of 325 should have been the minimum ambition in the conditions by Suranga Lakmal’s team.

So unless there is a significant last-wicket surge on Saturday, the innings should close a fair bit short of that.

Also to consider is that the ‘Lankans had romped to 116 in the 35th over before they lost their first wicket – a worrying early signal, if you were South African, of their desire to close out the series with some comfort by going genuinely “big” in their first knock.

But with the outstanding, durable Keshav Maharaj to the fore – 8/116 in a marathon 32 overs, for the best return yet by a South African spinner on the Subcontinent – those ambitions were quite spiritedly thwarted by the Proteas, who snared as many as six wickets in the third session of a typically humid day.

Here’s some statistical material to consider, too: the average total by the side batting first in Tests at the venue over the last five clashes there is 406.

It is helped a great deal by India boasting a hefty 622 for nine declared last August, while the previous four totals are 355 by Sri Lanka against Australia (2016), 312 by the Indians (2015), 320 by Sri Lanka against Pakistan (2014) and 421 by the home team against the Proteas in SA’s last tour of the country, also during 2014.

All that said, of course, when you bear in mind that Faf du Plessis’s outfit managed a less than regal combined total of 199 runs in the Galle fiasco only a few days ago, there is also a case from some quarters for suggesting Sri Lanka are already sitting prettier than it may seem.

Make no mistake, too, if South Africa find their backs to the wall all over again as the Test progresses, the selection policy for Colombo is going to come zooming back as a hot potato.

By leaving out veteran all-rounder Vernon Philander and unorthodox spinner Tabraiz Shamsi from the team who capitulated in the first Test – both having had their moments of heartening competitiveness in varying ways, mind – and calling up Theunis de Bruyn and Lungi Ngidi in their places, there was one especially glaring hallmark to the balance of the XI.

It simply seemed to defy logic that they should, firstly, cut their out-and-out bowling arsenal down to four elements for a must-win occasion, but also, and no less controversially, snub deep-rooted local trends and requirements by opting for a lone slow bowler in Maharaj.

Cricket is a bit like politics, perhaps: you can put a devious, suit-your-needs, er, spin on things.

So by pointing to Maharaj’s stellar figures from Friday, the Proteas’ core strategists might be inclined to opine: “See, one is enough.”

But a strong counter-view (and one clearly subscribed to by two former SA captains in Kepler Wessels and Shaun Pollock, the SuperSport commentators) would be that if one spinner could be so influential, surely it only cries out for doubling the threat level by having another?

There were times on his stamina-examining day that Maharaj almost inevitably, temporarily lost his discipline as he delivered a full toss here, a drag-down there.

He might well have been able to apply more consistent pressure had his skipper, Du Plessis, not been required to draw into service part-time spinners Dean Elgar and Aiden Markram for essentially limited, alternative use as tweakers.

For all his undoubted talent and potential, why, also, was there such interest in giving paceman Ngidi – for one thing, not yet renowned for an ability to bowl lengthy spells -- his first exposure to unhelpful Asian pitches at this point?

Although the 22-year-old certainly did not disgrace on day one, the big unit also ended up being the least statistically productive South African seamer (13-1-48-0) of their three.

There is also a heap of unwelcome pressure, all over again, on the sometimes-in-sometimes-out De Bruyn to deliver at the crease as an extra batsman in Colombo, bearing in mind the limitations he forced to the attack just by being selected.

The lean right-hander has similarly been thrown into decisive, Subcontinent combat for the first time, and more than a little ring-rusty in general cricket terms, into the bargain …

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing


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