The Proteas have a selection issue on their hands when they travel to Australia in November.
Helped by a NZ team that wasn’t up for the fight at Centurion, South Africa wrapped up their Test ‘series’ 1-0 and moved up two places in the world rankings to No 5.
That South Africa benefited from a Kiwi side that didn’t look ‘switched on’ at Centurion after a washed-out Kingsmead Test is undeniable. Kane Williamson won what was always going to be an important toss, given the Test was being played in August, early in the season and on a pitch that was surely going to deteriorate the longer the match went. And what did he do? He chose to send South Africa in to bat. A schoolboy error.
Some 154 overs later and the Proteas declared their innings at 481 for 8, and that was without having AB de Villiers in their starting XI. New Zealand only lasted 58.3 overs in their first dig, before the Proteas decided to go for more runs and set the visitors an impossible 400 to win. They fell 205 runs short and this time lasted one ball less (58.2) than they had in their first innings.
Also, New Zealand were woeful in their use of the TV referral, missing three opportunities to appeal that would have seen the umpire overturn three decisions and claim a South African wicket.
Suddenly, Dale Steyn is back at No 1 in the Test bowling rankings after match figures of 8-99, Vernon Philander has found his mojo again and is up to 11th, while the ever-impressive Kagiso Rabada has moved up to No 27, after just eight Tests.
All is right with the Proteas and they now head to Australia full of confidence, is the consensus. And when De Villiers returns they will be even stronger. It’s not as straightforward as it looks.
De Villiers needs to be accommodated, so who falls out of the starting XI? Presumably, on the bouncier Australian wickets there will be a lot of debate as to whether Morne Morkel returns ahead of Dane Piedt.
First things first. De Villiers comes in and you’d imagine that Stiaan van Zyl will make way for him. That would make, taking Centurion as the yardstick, the following XI: Stephen Cook, Quinton de Kock, Hashim Amla, AB De Villiers, JP Duminy, Faf Du Plessis, Temba Bavuma, Vernon Philander, Kagiso Rabada, Dale Steyn and Dane Piedt/Morne Morkel.
But, in spite of two fiftys against New Zealand with an average strike rate of 94, De Kock shouldn’t be opening the Test innings. That opinion is based on the fact that he’s the wicketkeeper and should be batting lower down the order; Test history has shown the difficulty of a wicketkeeper doubling up as an opener. The reason is that should De Kock go on to score a big hundred – as all openers are asked to do – it would impact on his keeping skills. And vice-versa. Spending two days behind the stumps in blazing sunshine as the opposition score 500 and then give you 10 minutes to put your batting pads on, is asking too much in terms of concentration levels.
De Kock too, with that high strike rate, is a destructive opener, like David Warner is, or Virender Sehwag was. He will score quickly, but also give the opposition a chance to get him out. I’d prefer him at No 7, where he can also be effective against the second, hard new ball and help add a minimum 150 runs from Nos 7 to 11.
With that in mind, who opens the Test batting?
And now we’re back to square one.
Stephen Cook has played three Tests and turns 34 in December. He’s a late bloomer and looks solid, and his technique should stand up to whatever Australia test him with, but an opening partner needs to be found. For me it’s not Van Zyl and it’s not De Kock, which brings us back to Dean Elgar.
That suggests too that the Test XI that played in the aborted Durban Test against New Zealand is a closer one than that which triumphed at Centurion. That XI was: Cook, Elgar, Amla, Duminy, Du Plessis, Bavuma, De Kock, Philander, Rabada, Steyn and Piedt. We need to be reminded though, that South Africa were bowled out for 283 on that occasion, before a brief glimpse of Steyn suggested the visitors would struggle matching that total. But, who drops out for De Villiers?
We’re also assuming that Steyn and Philander are back to their best. Steyn has committed his future to Tests and he is about to go past Shaun Pollock’s record Test wickets. But, if the New Zealand ‘series’ was a false dawn, then, again the bowling ranks would be rather thin, with Rabada being expected to produce the heroics he did against England.
The bottom line is that while we are rightly celebrating victory over New Zealand, it’s far too soon to suggest that the Proteas are back to where they were before being beaten 3-0 in India and 2-1 in South Africa.
Photo: Anesh Debiky