Cape Town - South African cricket may well be in its weakest position for resources and depth on the vital batting front since the return from Test isolation in 1992.
Certainly the enduring frailty in that department - and cracks had been appearing in several earlier series – against England went a long way to explaining the 3-1 away defeat, duly completed on Monday at Old Trafford as the hosts comfortably retained the Basil D’Oliveira Trophy.
What’s more, the reserve or supposedly up-and-coming pool of batsmen back home does awfully little to inspire confidence for a robust short- to medium-term future, either.
In truth, the Proteas’ once near-legendary fielding and catching standards have receded quite markedly, too, a fact that proved agonisingly costly at times, but the bowling was generally tenacious despite injury and illness-related impediments and the ongoing unavailability of someone like Dale Steyn.
Long-serving Morne Morkel, for example, worked his socks off, retaining pressure and bowling shrewd, out-of-comfort-zone lengths in an admirable confirmation that he has put career-threatening injury problems behind him (though perhaps touch wood on that one).
Number one area of concern, however, is widely acknowledged to be the alarming woes at the crease.
I believe it is almost beyond debate that South Africa put out their most callow, technically-challenged and vulnerable batting division at the outset for any post-isolation Test tour of England - there have now been six, stretching back to 1994 - and that was only confirmed by collective performance during the four-Test hostilities.
The home country’s front-line batting wasn’t constantly imperious, either, but their impressive weight of all-rounders down the order more often than not made a major, rescuing difference to eventual totals.
In fairness, the Proteas were always going to be severely examined at the crease in England, as this was their first tour there in a while minus the service of now-retired, massive “aura” figures like Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis, a situation only aggravated by the controversial decision of gun stroke-player AB de Villiers to miss the trek.
South Africa, like it or not, are also in a deeper transitional phase of sorts due to the ineligibility, on Kolpak contracts, of proven run-getters - and at least solid, street-wise options to stiffen the wobbling cause had they been available - like Rilee Rossouw and Stiaan van Zyl.
A quick run through the seven batsmen who played in the final Test at Manchester, a 177-run defeat, only illustrates the fragile state of things; it is an uncomfortable fact that virtually every position in the order is open to doubt and scrutiny, to varying degrees:
Dean Elgar (series runs 291 at 36.37; career average now 38.86): A real battler, which most of us already knew. But it is also a stark fact that easily South Africa’s most senior opener at present still averages below 40 in Tests, and he relied heavily on one big century at The Oval for a respectable English tour.
Heino Kuhn (series runs 113 at 14.12; career average thus same): England is a taxing place to debut, so just maybe there will be redemption opportunities on surfaces that better suit him. Yet with such a low series return, maybe not at all - especially as he is hardly a long-termer at 33.
Hashim Amla (series runs 329 at 41.12; career average now 49.00): Gritty enough stuff overall from the once more dominating figure. But it is also significant that he made almost as many runs as he did in this whole series in one innings of 311 not out on the prior tour of England! One ton in his last 28 knocks is an unusually low return for him; is the great combatant simply succumbing gently to the ravages of time at age 34?
Temba Bavuma (series runs 257 at 32.12; career average now 31.60): Rightful plaudits for his tight technique and resolve under pressure on this problematic tour. I said before the trip and say so again: he’s (very) worth persevering with. At the end of the day, though a series average of 32 and career one still lagging just below that - plus one ton in 38 Test innings - raises major questions about whether blue-chip No 4 really is his best berth and in the team’s best interests going forward. I’d prefer five for him.
Faf du Plessis (series runs 171 at 28.50; career average now 43.28): Started the series after the first Test, and then never truly got the engine purring personally. Feeling persists in some circles that he’s “hiding” at No 5 and should take responsibility higher. Career Test stats still look healthy, indeed, but are just a little skewed through his roaring start in the five-day arena …
Quinton de Kock (series runs 185 at 23.12; career average now 44.64): Considering his natural gifts and earlier excellence, this was an unusually poor tour for him in batting terms, even if his ‘keeping was often outstanding. But it was also his first major exposure to the unique demands of English strips, and he will learn from it. Given his dual chores, No 6 seems a suitable station in the foreseeable future?
Theunis de Bruyn (series runs 60 at 15.00; career average now 12.00, though only three Tests): In a trio of Test matches (including debut in NZ), he’s already sampled three different batting positions, telling you much about the muddle the side’s brains trust seem to be in. Played some crisp strokes in his 48 at Lord’s, but also looked leaden and naïve too often. At 24, warrants further chances to settle, though this may be difficult for a while if SA opt to pursue a mere “six specialist batsmen” strategy.
Regrettably, the next tier of options to potentially beef up the SA batting arsenal hardly gets pulses racing.
Any national ‘A’ side would usually be regarded as a decent barometer of “next cabs off the rank” but a glance at the current SA ‘A’ squad - the one named for the two unofficial (four-day) Tests against Indian counterparts shortly - doesn’t instantly throw up many names who look ripe for proper Test activity.
All it really does, some might venture with good cause, is serve as a further reminder of the mediocrity - and is that a generous word to use? - that currently abounds in domestic first-class cricket.
Is a side that should be geared toward development of young talent, really the place for someone like 34-year-old Stephen Cook, already exposed to and then ditched from the Test plans? Or David Miller, who can’t even be too sure currently of his place in the Proteas’ limited-overs sides despite that landscape being far more his customary forte?
Nor do the first-class stats of a few other selections inspire massive confidence: if Khaya Zondo (average 30.99, aged 27), Jason Smith (27.24, though at least he is a 22-year-old prospect) or Omphile Ramela (29.55, aged 29) aren’t exactly flourishing through weight of runs in brittle franchise cricket, what earthly chance is there of prolonged productivity in Test matches?
As for the SA ‘A’ skipper, Aiden Markram, the ongoing crisis at the top of the Proteas’ Test order only turns up the pressure even further on the highly-touted 22-year-old to prove that he is the solution not far up the road at all.
South African batting? In broadest terms, I’m afraid I only see a bad moon, and one, with apologies to Creedence, still risin’ ...
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