Proteas set to risk fluffy tail?

2017-09-23 15:44
Ottis Gibson (Gallo Images)

Cape Town - Day one of the first Test against Bangladesh at Potchefstroom on Thursday should serve intriguing notice of how new Proteas coach Ottis Gibson favours structuring the national team in the earliest months of his tenure.

The vexing debate about whether to go with six batsmen or seven - the latter approach usually limiting the specialist bowling attack to just four members - only continues, and Gibson is already badly hampered by the absence, in this first challenge of a busy home season in the extended format, of “bridging” all-rounders Vernon Philander and Chris Morris.

Perhaps significantly, these two versatile cricketers occupied slots seven and eight respectively in easily the most satisfying performance of the recent tour of England: both contributed busily with bat and ball as South Africa romped to a 340-run win, their only one of a series eventually surrendered 3-1.

The balance of the Proteas team also looked healthy in that Nottingham second Test, with the ability to field a five-man attack and the workload-spreading, pressure-retaining advantages attached to it.

At the time, Philander was providing more and more assurance, too, of his batting mettle at No 7, with Morris a solid follow-up presence one rung down, ahead of the more orthodox tail-enders.  

But the pair are inconveniently injured for the opening of the new Test summer, so if the new mastermind - remember, a bowling all-rounder himself in his playing days - wants a five-strong bowling unit for the first clash at Senwes Park, the proven batting is going to stop dead, in many senses, at No 6.

In short, are Gibson and his lieutenants prepared to gamble with either of Andile Phehlukwayo, who would be on Test debut, or Wayne Parnell (subject to a fitness test) in as lofty a berth as seven?

Such a scenario would probably mean the remainder of the order being made up of Keshav Maharaj, Kagiso Rabada, Duanne Olivier and Morne Morkel - the kind of iffy tail that would seriously interest stronger foes, with respect, than the Bangladeshis in South African conditions.

The other question to ask is whether the Proteas’ frontline batting, assuming it is curtailed to a staffing of six, can be trusted enough under current circumstances to render the competence or otherwise of the tail more or less redundant.

Deep down, there are bound to be some thoughts that this is “only Bangladesh” - still ranked ninth in the world, despite their gutsy recent 1-1 outcome at home to Australia - and that the main SA batting gunners really ought to fire deafeningly enough.

Of course the other option for the heavily fancied home nation on Thursday will be to field all seven batsmen named in the 13-strong squad - guaranteeing a fourth cap for Theunis de Bruyn, who might otherwise be likeliest omission - and just not bother about a Phehlukwayo or Parnell type of component in the XI.

Fifth-bowler chore could then be shared by part-timers like rookie opener Aiden Markram with his sometimes very passable off-spin and partner Dean Elgar’s left-arm tweaking possibilities.

But the just-completed first round of Sunfoil Series matches, all at Highveld-type venues and all drawn, has served notice that early-summer conditions remain generally weighted against bowlers countrywide, so that could form part of the thinking of Gibson and his lieutenants in determining the team’s balancing.

Could Phehlukwayo provide the right batting stuff at far from unimportant No 7, especially if there have been unwelcome wobbles higher up?

His first-class stats (682 runs at 20.05) do little to suggest this, but then he is also only 21 years old and with just 27 matches of that variety under his belt.

Interestingly, he also batted considerably better than he bowled, at least on paper, in the Dolphins’ Sunfoil Series outing against the Titans at Centurion, where he notched 37 and a defiant follow-up 62 which played a key role in the visitors holding out for the stalemate.

A good, close look at how the Potchefstroom pitch might play - Senwes Park sees its first Test match since lone prior occurrence against the same opponents in October 2002 - is naturally likely to influence which particular shape South Africa feel most comfortable with.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing


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