Cape Town - Few decisions at the toss have sparked as much debate as Faf du Plessis opting to bat on the nearest thing to a green mamba wicket at Newlands since Australia were shot for 47 all out in 2011.
The Proteas captain went to the toss packing heat after asking for four fast bowlers in Vernon Philander, Dale Steyn, Kagiso Rabada and Morné Morkel.
But instead of releasing it, he left the oven door closed when it came to whether he’d like first use of a particularly saucy Newlands surface.
Du Plessis’ rationale was that experience had taught him that, while the Newlands track – like most Test wickets – “did” a bit on the first morning, it tended to be slow and quickened up on the second day, which is when he wanted to unleash his almost West Indian-type battery of fast bowlers.
But when the four quicks’ first contribution in the match was to help the six recognised batsmen post a competitive total after the last of them, Quinton de Kock, departed in the 45th over with the total on just 202, there was no shortage of critics suggesting Du Plessis had taken his reputation as an adventurous captain too far.
The basic line of interrogation was that if the Proteas had chosen to blast India out with that many fast bowlers, why not take the opportunity to do so when the wicket was fresh?
The other side of that equation was that, if you’ve decided to only go with six batsmen, why expose them to one of the grassiest wickets at Newlands?
Also, with the talk in the build-up to the game all about how lively the track was likely to be, wasn’t going with four fast bowlers overkill?
Of course, the obvious response to that is that the Proteas were particularly keen to find a place for returning paceman Steyn, but weren’t sure about his durability after a lengthy spell on the sidelines with a fractured shoulder.
This necessitated the axing of batsman Temba Bavuma from the line-up, and the transformation lobby weren’t amused at what looked like preferential treatment for South Africa’s premier fast bowler of the last decade, who is five wickets from becoming the country’s highest wicket taker.
Among all those recriminations and counter-recriminations, there are a few observations one might take away from the Proteas going into the Test with a six-five split of batsmen and bowlers.
The first is that it looks as though under new coach Ottis Gibson, the Proteas may want to go the aggressive route of demanding that the six batsmen get them their runs before blasting them out with an attack loaded to the gills with quicks and the underrated spinner Keshav Maharaj.
The second is that, as a former fast bowling coach, Gibson (possibly with Du Plessis in his ear) was always going to want to see Steyn, one of the best fast bowlers of his generation, do his stuff before the light in those infamous crazy eyes dies down.
Make no mistake, Steyn had nothing but his 417 Test wickets in his favour going into that selection meeting because form and games played were certainly not on his side.
Some may call it preferential treatment, but coaches and their captains are allowed a discretionary pick.
Looking for signs
With regards to Bavuma’s axing, it was a tough call on a man whose temperament is perfectly suited to handling the Proteas’ struggles on Friday.
But Bavuma, a better shot maker than the nudger who’s carved a niche as a rearguard specialist since joining the Proteas, knows he needs to kick on by addressing his reputation as a blocker and his failure to convert starts into big centuries.
There was a suggestion to keep him in the squad as the team’s fielding talisman like Jonty Rhodes used to, but aside from former Cobras player Sybrand Engelbrecht, nobody’s made a cricket team on the basis of their fielding.
And for those of us obsessed with looking for signs, the team picked for Gibson’s first serious Test in charge hints at a coach willing to withstand the backlash of running foul of transformation targets if they interfere with how he wants to play the game.
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