Keshav Maharaj’s arrival and Morné Morkel’s return bode well for a Proteas side with grand ambitions.
In the lead-up to the series in England in 2012, Dale Steyn raised a few eyebrows when he claimed that the Proteas were – at least in their own hearts and minds – the best Test side on the planet. At the time, most English journalists laughed off the claim and pointed to an ICC rankings ladder which suggested otherwise.
Looking back, Steyn and company had every reason to feel confident. Not only did the Proteas boast some of the world’s best batsmen, but the most feared attack in world cricket. Steyn, Morné Morkel, Vernon Philander, and Jacques Kallis represented the seam contingent, while Imran Tahir and JP Duminy offered slow-bowling options.
The Proteas side that travels to England later this year is unlikely to make such strong claims. The team will be without Kallis, who retired from the five-day game in 2013. The fitness and availability of Steyn for that four-game series is yet to be confirmed.
That said, South Africa look set to field a balanced attack that will trouble the England batsmen. Morkel, Kagiso Rabada, and Philander should all feature in that series. If recent performances are anything to go by, left-arm spinner Keshav Maharaj could also have a key role to play.
To say the Proteas have shown progress in the wake of a nightmare 2015-16 season is an understatement. That season witnessed gutting series losses to India and England, and ultimately a drop from first to seventh in the Test rankings. Over the past eight months, however, the Proteas have won seven, drawn two, and lost one. They have moved up to third in the ICC rankings – above England – as a result.
South Africa smashed New Zealand in Wellington recently to take a 1-0 lead in the three-game series. The decider will be staged in Hamilton later this week, and the Proteas should be looking to win well and claim their fourth-consecutive series victory.
Privately, the Proteas may be looking at the Test at Seddon Park as a final chance to perform ahead of the series in England, which commences in July. A lot can happen over the next three months, but it would do the Proteas good to know that their combination is more or less settled ahead of such a season-defining series.
Maharaj deserves every plaudit he’s received in the wake of his game-shaping performances in Dunedin and Wellington. Captain Faf du Plessis has spoken about Maharaj in the same breath as Rangana Herath‚ Ravi Jadeja‚ Nathan Lyon‚ and the world’s leading bowler, Ravichandran Ashwin. His coaches have spoken about his control, and also about his mental strength.
In an interview with ESPNcricinfo, South Africa’s slow-bowling guru Claude Henderson mentioned that Maharaj has a rare understanding of his ability and how that fits into the team’s game plan. Henderson went as far to say that, after claiming 24 wickets at a strike rate of 49.2 in his first six Tests, Maharaj has arrived.
The current Test series has also witnessed a significant comeback. After spending more than a year out of the game with injury, Morkel has returned with new purpose. On the basis of his performances against New Zealand, he’s lost none of his pace nor his ability to fire the ball in at an uncomfortable length.
While he may go on to make a big contribution in the third Test against New Zealand, one gets the feeling that he will only be back to his fearsome best in the next series against England. For the Proteas, it’s an encouraging thought.
Rabada and Philander will have important roles to play in England. There may be another big comeback on the cards, with Steyn recently announcing via social media that rehabilitation from injury is going well.
An attack that features Steyn, Morkel, Rabada, Philander, and Maharaj is bound to cause the England batsmen problems. If all of the above are fit and available, the Proteas should travel to England later this year confident that a series win is within their grasp.
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