That applies to the 13 men chosen to represent the Proteas in the first two Tests against England.
While the return of AB de Villiers to his duty with the wicketkeeper’s gloves probably got the most airplay, the announcement of the squad seemed to confirm a few things. In no particular order: there is a major problem with the opening batsmen combination, the spinner’s role is confusing and what will happen if De Villiers gets injured? I ask the question because De Villiers himself, as recently as last year, said that his back was a continual concern for him and his sore back made it difficult for him to perform wicketkeeping duties in the Test environment. There is no obvious replacement in the 13 to take over during the course of the first two Tests.
Dane Piedt leapfrogged Simon Harmer and Imran Tahir to be chased as the only spinner in the squad, although it’s by no means fait accompli that he’ll get a match in the first two Tests. ‘At the moment we’re looking for someone to play a holding role because the conditions in South Africa suit the seamers,’ said convener Linda Zondi when announcing the squad. And that’s a negative statement from Zondi, surely? Are we going back to the days that we’re seeing a spinner – think Paul Harris – picked merely to tie up one end as the seamers get a chance to rest and rotate?
Piedt does instinctively look a more attacking spinner than Zondi implies, although we don’t know what the instructions to him will be should he get his chance. Hopefully it won’t be to bowl wicket-to-wicket and dart the ball in on a faster, flatter trajectory. We need a spinner who is given freedom to get the ball above eye level and let it drift, bounce and spin.
The opening situation is a shambles, which is presumably why Rilee Rossouw has been included in the 13, although it seems a given that Dean Elgar and Stiaan van Zyl will open and Temba Bavuma will slot in at No 7, as a specialist batsman, ahead of the bowlers.
South Africa are the bookmakers’ favourites for the four-Test series, despite their confidence being shot following a 3-0 drubbing at the hands of India in what would have been a 4-0 reverse had the second Test not been washed out. Little wonder that the captain himself, Hashim Amla, has been released to play in the four-day Sunfoil Series the week before the Boxing Day Test. Had Amla been in form, and in the runs, he would be getting himself ready mentally for England, not recommended to get out in the middle in domestic cricket.
The Proteas are presumably the favourites, not because of their No 1 ranking, that is now being threatened, but because they are playing at home. These days, with so much limited-overs cricket being played, touring teams aren’t allowed to settle into their itinerary; England themselves have two three-day warm-ups and then are thrust into the Test cauldron.
Obviously, we’ll all be wiser after the event, but we now look to be feeling the effects of Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis’ retirement. Both quit within a couple of months of one another – Kallis announced two Christmas Days ago that the Kingsmead Test would be his last, and Smith in March 2014 – and while we all knew they’d be near impossible boots to fill, only now we are seeing what big losses they were.
They also provided huge insurance and safe buckets for hands in the slips area, which might be one reason why De Villiers has been given the gloves ahead of Dane Vilas and Quinton de Kock against England; it’s important to have experience behind the wicket backing up the bowlers and De Villiers has over 100 Tests under his belt.
With the rand falling through the trapdoor in recent months, one thing can be guaranteed: don’t expect ‘traditional’ South African pitches favouring the fast bowlers to be prepared against England. I have no doubt the groundsmen around the country will be asked to produce tracks that will last five days. Cricket SA will desperately want all the Tests to stretch out the full five days and make the most of the commercial sponsorships and TV audiences to cash in. Therefore, don’t be surprised if there’s a draw or two in the series, big scores on flat pitches made flatter by the droughts that have affected large swathes of the country.
England might be the underdogs but they’ve certainly got a chance of upsetting the No 1 side in their backyard. Amla didn’t impress as captain in India and his form suffered as a consequence. Everyone will feel a lot more comfortable at home than they did in India, but there’s a brittle feel to the world’s top-ranked team as they take on a side who ripped the Ashes urn away from Australia. Fortunately, home ground advantage counts for plenty.