Unpredictable conditions, a new captain, and Test-match cricket for the first time in eight months. Are the Proteas ready?
RECORD ON THE LINE
In short, New Zealand have an abysmal Test record against South Africa. In fact, they haven’t won a Test match against the Proteas since 2004, and have yet to win a series against them altogether. In the last 22 Tests played between the nations, the Black Caps have only won once. However, both sides know that this is a different Kiwi outfit. While they used to rely on one or two outstanding individuals to carry them through, the New Zealanders have a very talented, gutsy group of players who will make any side work hard for a victory. The last time the Black Caps visited South African shores, they were blown away by innings victories in both matches. Don’t expect the same three and a half years on. Durban isn’t all that familiar to the hosts at this time of the year, and the New Zealand batsmen, albeit against Zimbabwe, have some runs under their belts.
AB de Villiers’ absence through injury has presented Faf du Plessis with the opportunity to lead the side, but will it be too much of a burden for him to carry? His confidence in this format isn’t at its highest after he was dropped from the fourth Test against England back in January, and he’s had to wait eight months to set that straight. While he has form in the shorter formats and captaincy experience with the T20 side, this will present a completely different challenge. AB’s absence means he also has to now step up in the middle order – they can’t just rely on Hashim Amla. In 10 Tests since the beginning of 2015, he averages 21.13 from 15 innings. Can he combine captaincy with a return to form?
One player not short of form in the longest format is Kane Williamson, who became the youngest by five years to score a Test century against every nation. His numbers since the beginning of 2015 are staggering. In 12 Tests, he’s amassed 1 586 runs at an average of 83.47. He’s the No 3 batsman in the world and he’s the skipper across all three formats. He’s the big fish and central to New Zealand’s success. With Ross Taylor beside him, they have a middle order that appears to have a bit more backbone and experience than their opponents.
The injury to Morne Morkel means the bowling lineup more or less picks itself. Kyle Abbott will be doing everything he can to press for a place, but Vernon Philander has the inside lane to join Kagiso Rabada and Dale Steyn in the attack. It will be Philander’s first international appearance since November last year against India, and despite modest returns for SA A, which saw him take seven wickets across the three four-day games he played, he’s match fit and ready to go. He’s taken an impressive 28 wickets in four matches at 14.57 against New Zealand. If he comes anywhere close to his devastating form from three-four years ago, then the bowling lineup is in good shape. They’re playing in Durban in August for the first time so it’s new relatively new territory for both sides. Nonetheless, it should be conditions that will favour Philander.
Russell Domingo vented his frustration at the amount of cricket his players have been playing recently. ‘There is a lot of cricket being played, a lot of money to be made,’ he said after their early Tri-Nation series exit. This was in reference to the amount of T20 cricket the likes of De Villiers, Amla and Du Plessis, among others, have being playing around the world. Does that mean they’re match-fit for Tests though? ‘It’s a different format but they’ve been playing a lot of cricket, so there is no feeling, in my opinion, of being undercooked,’ Domingo said earlier in the week. The fact remains that the Proteas haven’t played a Test match for eight months. Steyn is used to bowling four overs a day, while Du Plessis and Amla have been smacking boundaries from ball one for months now. The biggest challenge for the majority of the players will be changing gears from T20s to the longest format.
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