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
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.
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