Summer pace snags for SA, England

2015-11-19 20:08
Vernon Philander (AFP)

Cape Town – South Africa minus one of their established spearheads at the outset, England missing their intended two best back-ups to James Anderson and Stuart Broad throughout the series.

That is the unfortunate likelihood – already confirmed in the visitors’ case -- when the two countries lock horns over the course of four Tests as the headline act of the domestic summer soon.

The Proteas will be very lucky if Vernon Philander is able to feature before the halfway mark of the series, following his ankle injury picked up in a soccer kick-about during training in Bangalore a week ago.

It immediately ruled him out of the remainder of the Indian series, and with a recovery period of six to eight weeks predicted, he is cutting it fine to play in either of the first two encounters with the English, in Durban from Boxing Day and then Cape Town over New Year.

Meanwhile the 16-strong England squad named on Thursday – apart from revealing an unexpected axing of seasoned batsman Ian Bell -- excludes the names of Mark Wood and Steven Finn, as had been indicated would happen a day earlier.

That pair would have duelled strongly with each other to operate as first-change behind lanky frontline fast bowlers Anderson and Broad, on the assumption that all-rounder Ben Stokes (himself in recovery mode from a shoulder mishap suffered against Pakistan in the UAE) will be the fourth element of their seam arsenal in the Tests here.

Instead the missing area in England’s jigsaw will have to be filled by one of fast-medium bowlers Chris Jordan and Chris Woakes, or new cap left-armer Mark Footitt.

Wood played in four Tests during that country’s successful home Ashes campaign against Australia earlier this year, and also took five wickets in the second Test against Pakistan at Dubai more recently, so might well have been favoured to  start against the Proteas at Kingsmead had an ankle problem (requiring surgery) not laid him low.

But the recently back-in-favour Finn would have run him close for a spot – until the additional blow of his not being able to join their keenly-awaited safari because of a stress injury to a foot.

The unpredictable Finn was man of the match in the Edgbaston Ashes Test, having claimed figures of 6/79 in the Aussie second innings there, and also boasts match figures of eight for 149 from the last Test match between England and South Africa at Lord’s in 2012 – albeit that Graeme Smith’s Proteas won to clinch a 2-0 series victory.

But if the English are rueing the non-presence on our shores of Wood and Finn, their hosts are also inconvenienced by Philander being unlikely to feature at either Kingsmead or Newlands.

Both coastal venues would have been best suited to his trade, given the anticipated seam-friendly conditions: he tends to be less effective on Highveld pitches, where the series winds up at the Wanderers and SuperSport Park respectively.

Philander’s record on his home-town pitch, for example, is near-superlative – 31 wickets from six Test matches at an average of 19.93.

There is a certain unease over South Africa’s broader pace staffing right now, given that the world’s top-ranked Test bowler Dale Steyn (Anderson is his nearest challenger) is still struggling to get over a groin strain to make the cut for the third Test against India at Nagpur from Wednesday.

At 32, he is just getting to that stage in a fast bowler’s life when niggles can become more frequent and also harder to shake off.

“Steyn v Anderson” is traditionally a much-hyped personal duel; it would be a disappointment to both sets of supporters if for some reason it doesn’t happen this summer ...

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing


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