Cape Town – The inconvenient thumb injury to key all-rounder Vernon Philander unsettles South Africa in more ways than may be imagined for the first Test against Pakistan at Centurion from Boxing Day.
Just for one thing, losing the eternally probing seamer and dogged lower-order batsman leaves the Proteas’ tail looking more fragile again, as they give up his reassuring qualities in the No 8 position.
Head coach Ottis Gibson has all but confirmed already that the four-strong frontline attack at SuperSport Park will now be made up, in Philander’s absence, of Dale Steyn, Kagiso Rabada, Keshav Maharaj and the squad’s formerly “extra” paceman in Duanne Olivier – it has to be that quartet, of course, as there are no additional specialist bowling options in a once 13-strong party now reduced to 12.
But with young speed prospect Lungi Ngidi also ruled out of high-level combat through injury until some time in February, the transformation-related make-up of the Test XI has been compromised, at least for the short term, as well.
That is because, if the Proteas go in with the expected batting top seven (at least before Philander’s pull-out from one slot below it) their side will return to a situation not visited for some time: only fielding four players of colour.
Despite the presence of a fresh face in the broader squad in the shape of exciting 23-year-old Cape Cobras right-hander Zubayr Hamza, it had initially seemed difficult to imagine the home outfit deviating from the status quo on the batting front: in other words, a top seven made up (possibly in this order, too) of Dean Elgar, Aiden Markram, Theunis de Bruyn, Hashim Amla, captain Faf du Plessis, Temba Bavuma and wicketkeeper Quinton de Kock.
But that potentially puts some stress, if you like, on the transformation side of things.
The issue became a bigger consideration just over two years ago when Cricket South Africa formally decided to extend “targets” from the domestic arena into the Proteas fold.
Under the revised transformation guidelines, the stipulated average minimum of players of colours in the national team was 54 percent, including an average minimum of 18 percent black African representation.
The latter target would still be met in the Boxing Day Test, considering the presence of Bavuma and Rabada.
But if the Proteas do go in with seven white players in the XI at SuperSport Park, the overall percentage of players of colour representing the home cause will fall to an unusually low – in the current climate - 36.36.
For each of their last away and home Tests (against Sri Lanka in Colombo and Australia in Johannesburg respectively) the racial split was 6-5 which, at 45.45 percent in a players-of-colour context, is at least closer to the more desired figure.
Even then, though, the Test-team situation has tended to lag behind the progress made at both limited-overs levels, where the Proteas have sometimes – and increasingly - been able to seamlessly field seven or eight players of colour in the XI without having to obsess too much about the formal racial-balance requirements.
Slower progress in the five-day landscape has been compensated for by the fact that the national side’s targets are based on an average of the cumulative representation across all three formats in a season.
Against that backdrop, the Proteas may not be taking too much of a “hit” should a temporary 7-4 split be deemed acceptable for Centurion.
CSA president Chris Nenzani is on record as saying: “Our selectors and team management will have the flexibility to deal with varying circumstances.”
Nevertheless, there are differing political factions within the corridors of the organisation, with some more strident than others about enforcing transformation needs on a consistent basis.
So it is probably not out of the question that Philander’s withdrawal from the Test slightly increases the likelihood that Hamza makes his debut on Boxing Day rather than carries drinks, if that was the original intention.
If so, the burning question would be: who, of the more regular batsmen, sits out?
The least established of the present top seven is De Bruyn, although the six-cap player, 26, made a defiant maiden century in his last Test vigil, the second innings of the heavy defeat at Colombo.
It would be a cruel move indeed to leave him out at his Titans home venue, although any of the others being side-lined at this point would represent even more of a startling step …
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing