Cape Town – The tour is more than three months away … but
there is also no further room for any “physical evidence” to aid the national
selectors, given the completion of the 2017/18 Sunfoil Series and domestic season
as a whole.
So deciding on a second specialist spinner will be a key
priority for Linda Zondi’s panel when they sit down to name the next Proteas
Test squad, for the two-Test challenge in Sri Lanka from mid-July.
The Test portion of the tour has been reduced from three to
two – heard that one before? – to accommodate five one-day internationals and a
lone Twenty20 fixture as well.
But the five-day combat comes at the front of the agenda and
represents a further opportunity for in-form South Africa (fresh off satisfying
home series triumphs over co-heavyweights India and Australia respectively) to
close the gap at the top of the ICC rankings on the still front-running
Faf du Plessis and his merry men lie second, and will be
mindful that, not too long after their Sri Lanka trip (their hosts are sixth on
the current ladder), India face the tricky task of a full, five-match series in
English conditions – both series could be pivotal to a possible change at the
helm of the pecking order.
But by going to the Subcontinent, conditions will also be
greatly different from those experienced at home over the last few memorable
months, which have seen successive SA triumphs over Bangladesh, Zimbabwe, India
and the Aussies.
A crucial part of their plans, in an otherwise reasonably attractive,
straightforward selection landscape in most departments, will be to determine
who merits being the second spin option to now well-established main customer
Keshav Maharaj (he gets his tantalising first own exposure to slow, turning
Asian Test conditions).
Things have changed a lot since the Proteas last played
Tests in Sri Lanka, a 1-0 triumph also in a two-match series, in 2014.
Then, leg-spinner Imran Tahir – now 39 and almost certainly
more concerned with keeping his limited-overs place – was used as the front-liner,
backed up by the part-time off-spin of batsman JP Duminy.
Tahir hasn’t played a Test since the Delhi match against
India in 2015, and Duminy, of course, has retired from the format.
So finding a back-up to that increasing revelation as
premier figure, Maharaj, is a fairly pressing issue.
It is hardly helped by the fact that the most obvious South
African-born choice, by far, would be Warriors off-spinner Simon Harmer – if
only he wasn’t ineligible for Kolpak-contract reasons.
The 29-year-old had a stellar last county season for Essex, playing
a massive role (72 wickets at 19) in their ascension to the County Championship
title, and followed that up by being top wicket-taker (47 at 21.85) in the
just-completed local Sunfoil Series for the Warriors.
At least for the moment, though, he has no opportunity to
add to his five Test caps for the Proteas.
Still, three of the next five best wicket-grabbers in the
Sunfoil Series were all spinners: the Dolphins’ Senuran Muthusamy (33 at
26.54), Shaun von Berg of the Titans (29 at 41.75) and the Cape Cobras’ Dane
Piedt (24 at 53.58).
The 24-year-old Muthusamy is an interesting case, as he is
also a frontline batsman boasting some big recent scores at No 4 for his
franchise – that puts the SA ‘A’-capped left-arm spinner into the inviting, proper
all-rounder category should he earn a senior Proteas call-up.
But the brand of his spin trade is also the exactly the same
as that of his Durban-based colleague Maharaj, so that arguably hampers his
case for the moment.
On the assumption that the selectors will seek someone who
presents different angles, Von Berg could be a dark horse.
Speaking on SuperSport’s chat show Inside Edge this week,
one of the SA spin stalwarts of post-isolation times, Paul Harris, said Von
Berg was “an old-fashioned leggie” with a decent slider; he felt he would be an
excellent attacking foil in Sri Lanka for Maharaj, who is well capable of
“holding” a game to add to his wicket-taking skills.
Counting against Von Berg, 31, is that he can be expensive
at times, and did not earn a single five-wicket haul in this season’s Sunfoil
But neither, for that matter, did another “possible” for SA
in the shape of Dane Piedt, the 28-year-old off-spinner, who has increasingly
found rich hauls a problem since his earliest - and initially highly promising - exposure for the Proteas almost four years back.
Piedt grabbed four-wicket hauls in each of his first three bowling
innings in Test cricket - Zimbabwe in Harare (twice) and India at Delhi (first
knock) - but has gradually tapered off subsequently, not helped by a serious
shoulder injury in the interim period.
He still exercises pretty good control at times, but
striking consistently has been an elusive quality.
A personal gut feel is that Piedt may, nevertheless, be
slight favourite for the second ticket to Sri Lanka, especially given his
seven-cap prior experience of the set-up (and 24 wickets at 36.04).
Only one of those Tests has been on the Subcontinent, so who
is to say he might not come right back into his own, given the chance?
Also still thereabouts, although seemingly branded more of a
limited-overs international factor – like Tahir – is the Titans’ left-arm
unorthodox Tabraiz Shamsi.
That said, he didn’t set the world alight on Test debut and
lone appearance thus far, against Australia in the dead-rubber pink-ball defeat
in Adelaide (November 2016): 1/101 and 1/49 respectively at average 75 …
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