SA batting: big squeeze has begun

2016-08-28 20:42
Vernon Philander (Gallo Images)

Cape Town – South Africa completed one of their most balanced-looking, formidable Test first innings scorecards in some time at Centurion on Sunday – something that may soon give the national selectors a significant dilemma.

Signs after day two of the decisive second encounter with New Zealand at SuperSport Park suggest the patient, 154-over Proteas vigil may well prove a pivotal factor in the outcome, on a pitch that is likely to only get more challenging to bat on with its quirky, variable bounce in particular.

The hosts were well in control at the close, having pinned back the Black Caps to 38 for three with some often hostile seam bowling in reply to their daunting 481 for eight declared.

It was a welcome development that South Africa, unusually marooned for the moment in the lower regions of the Test rankings, saw six of their frontline seven batsmen make meaningful scores.

The odd man out was Temba Bavuma, who posted only eight from the No 6 slot, although you can’t keep a good man entirely down; an inspired bit of short-leg fielding in the lengthening shadows saw him run out seasoned NZ stroke-player Ross Taylor with a direct hit.

Bavuma had also looked decent at the crease in the infamously short-lived first Test at Kingsmead, so it is not as though form is a problem for him at present.

But with everyone else getting stuck in to varying degrees, including premier SA efforts coming from two previously under-pressure players Faf du Plessis (112 not out) and JP Duminy (88), it is becoming clear that Linda Zondi and his co-selectors will have a pleasant – at least in some respects – problem assembling their willow-wielders for the next Test-level challenge, a three-match one in Australia during November.

It is just possible that the Proteas may not have too much further batting to do in this Test, which means further, widespread opportunities to press claims for plane tickets to Down Under are running dry.

The poser relates to the fact that the seven specialists deployed at Centurion should soon be swelled by having two fit-again stalwarts -- AB de Villiers and Dean Elgar – available for the tour after respective injuries.

De Villiers naturally selects himself, not least because he is the designated Test captain, whilst the left-handed opener Elgar, a late pull-out at SuperSport Park after an ankle mishap in pre-Test training, would also reasonably expect to go to Australia; wicketkeeper Quinton de Kock deputised with strong success at the top of the order on Friday, moving up from more routine No 7 for him.

Elgar’s replacement in the XI against the Black Caps, Stiaan van Zyl, meanwhile served some reminders of his potential in a more preferred middle-order berth by putting together a diligent 35 and helping Du Plessis post 84 runs for the sixth wicket.

He is probably the most endangered player for Australia if the wise men simply find it impossible to accommodate as many as nine batting options in a likely 16-man touring squad.

That was the squad size taken to Oz the last time South Africa played a Test series there in 2012/13, when they won 1-0 under Graeme Smith’s leadership – a second successive triumph in Australia.

Still, in Van Zyl’s favour is his ability to also chip in with a few tight overs of medium pace, perhaps not an unimportant consideration if the Proteas persist with their mere four-bowler policy, including one spinner.

He is a useful man to have stopping up an end every now and then to give the proper strike bowlers greater potential for breathers.

An inevitable extra factor to think about, at a time of increased transformation requirements, is the racial make-up of a Proteas party.

If they did somehow manage to squeeze in all nine batsmen -- Cook, Elgar, Amla, De Villiers (he might have to agree to be the back-up wicketkeeper), Du Plessis, Bavuma, Duminy, Van Zyl and De Kock -- only three of them are players of colour, so there would have to be pretty significant rebalancing on the bowling or all-rounder front to satisfy political considerations.

Regardless of how the current Test against New Zealand pans out, very tricky choices for the Aussie venture certainly loom quite quickly …

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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