Vernon Philander’s promotion to the top of the order in the first Test against India was more than just an experiment. It shows a lack of confidence in the other options available to the Proteas.
Had Philander scored runs and helped the Proteas to victory, the decision to move him to the top of the order would have been declared a stroke of genius, but there’s one thing that wouldn’t have changed – the lack of belief in others to have done the job. A reshuffling of the pack will fix that, which will in turn change the mindset.
It would be unfair to judge too harshly one match into a four Test series, but I feel there are some pretty clear changes that could be made going into the second encounter, without anyone even needing to be dropped, and it begins at the top of the order.
Dean Elgar lacks the experience to be the experienced one at the top of the order, so he needs someone with mileage to accompany him, and that someone has to be Hashim Amla. They didn’t pick an out-and-out opener to join Elgar in the squad. Stephen Cook should be there – his leadership, experience and form at domestic level should have been tested at the highest level. It’s not too late for that, but for the time being Amla is the best option at the top.
He’s the best ODI opener in the world, and there’s no reason why that can’t translate to the longest format. I’m not suggesting he hasn’t been performing well at No 4, but someone of Amla’s calibre and calmness at the crease shouldn’t be there. No 3, where he’s carved a name out for himself as one of the best around, is the lowest he should be, but not with the options within the squad at the moment.
That brings me to first drop. I would put Stiaan van Zyl there. The reasons for this are two-fold. One is that this is where he wants to play, this is why he got picked in the first place. Opening with him one innings and putting him at No 6 in another is wishy washy and does little for the confidence of a player trying to build a Test career.
The other reason is that I would rather have Faf du Plessis at No 5. Again, not to take anything away from the work Du Plessis has done at No 3. He’s been a sturdy operator and has dropped anchor at crucial stages. But the Proteas must look at how they can maximise the quality of each player, and in Du Plessis, they have a player who can switch gears instantly.
That is someone you want at No 5 – someone who can infuriate the bowlers with pure stubbornness one moment, and up the tempo when things get bogged down the next.
That then leaves No 4, and there’s absolutely no doubt in my mind who should be playing there. You want your best batsman there. Look at all the international teams around the world, and you’ll find their best batsman at No 4. Bar two innings against Australia and England (84 & 44), AB de Villiers has never batted there before for the Proteas, and 99 Tests in, you’ve got to ask yourself why!
Whether two wickets fall in the first over or after 100 overs, you want De Villiers to be the man to come in.
With JP Duminy coming back into the frame for the next Test in Bangalore on Saturday, the Proteas have an extremely balanced top six. They just need to be batting in the right positions.