The only way to establish yourself as a batsman in South Africa’s Test team is by sheer weight of runs. No-one understands this better than Stiaan van Zyl.
The Proteas have been a settled Test team for the best part of four years now, making it extremely difficult for anyone to break into the side. The No 1 Test team have been going through a bit of a transition over the past 18 months after Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis retired, but they have coped remarkably well since losing two of South Africa’s all-time greats.
The biggest change has been at the top of the order where the retirements of Smith and Alviro Petersen left a big void to fill. Dean Elgar was the first to establish himself as the new opening batsman, while Stiaan van Zyl has only recently been given the nod to make the position his own.
Van Zyl marked his Test debut with a hundred against the West Indies less than a year ago and is now looking to establish himself as a makeshift opener in some of the toughest conditions imaginable.
‘Reeza [Hendricks] is not in the squad this time so hopefully I get a chance to establish myself in the four Tests against India,’ Van Zyl told SACricketmag.com.
‘I’m not putting extra pressure on myself, I’m just going out there and playing my normal game. It’s nice to get that vote of confidence to open the batting for your country. Nothing is set in stone, but I can can focus on the first two Tests at least and try to make a contribution.’
Van Zyl is part of a relatively inexperienced top order at Test level, with neither him nor Elgar or Faf du Plessis having previously played Test cricket in India. He did, however, tour with the South Africa A side to India earlier this year in what can only be described as ideal preparation for a tour of this magnitude.
‘It was indeed ideal to go to India with SA A as preparation for this tour,’ Van Zyl admits. ‘It went well. I’m positive about going into the India series as an opener from a batting perspective.’
Van Zyl, together with Vernon Philander, Dane Piedt and Dane Vilas, joined up with the Test squad after the successful ODI series. All four played three Momentum One-Day Cup matches for the Cape Cobras prior to flying over.
‘Any cricket you can play before the series is good; get some miles in the legs and facing bowlers. I’m happy with my game at the moment. Having toured with the SA A side have helped my approach to this series,’ Van Zyl says.
‘The two games we played there were very tough, especially the conditions which were very much spin friendly, but I felt solid in those conditions. I’m much more positive now than if I didn’t go to India with SA A. My mindset is clearer on how it’s going to be over here and what to expect. I know it’s going to be tough.’
Van Zyl is under no illusions about the magnitude of the challenge that awaits, especially since he desperately wants to be part of the England tour to South Africa at the end of the year.
‘It’s the biggest test of my short career,’ Van Zyl admits. ‘It’s a massive series for South Africa and for me. It’s nice to have four Tests and not only two or three. I’m a positive guy and it would be nice to look back at the four games afterwards and know I did well. If I get through this tour, in tough conditions and with big crowds against you, then you can feel confident of touring to any other country.
My biggest challenge will be to set a good platform for the team. A lot of people say opening the batting in India is the easiest time to bat and I will have to show that. When I get through the opening period and I’m on 30 odd runs, I have to kick on and dictate the game with guys batting around me. I will have to try to bat for as long as possible.’
JP Duminy is still an injury concern ahead of the first Test, which could be a big blow since he provides an important balance to the side with his off-spin. However, Van Zyl feels he may be able to offer something similar with ball in hand while Elgar can also bowl some left-arm spin.
‘I can plant the ball in the right places for a period of time. I love to bowl. It adds something to my game and means I’m not just a batsman, but a fourth of fifth seamer. I expect to bowl a few overs in India, especially when the going gets tough,’ Van Zyl says.
‘My next goal is to open the batting for South Africa against England at Newlands in the New Years Test. If I prove myself in India I might just get the nod to play against England, which is another massive series for us.’
One of the toughest challenges Van Zyl and the rest of the South African batting order will face is R Ashwin, India’s first-choice spinner and one of the best in the world.
‘I’ve been keeping an eye on him,’ Van Zyl says. ‘I will do my homework on him in the build-up to the first Test. It will be good to test myself against him. If you survive against him in favourable spin conditions you probably never have to worry about facing spin again.’