With Faf du Plessis missing the first Test against England, the middle-order trio of JP Duminy, Temba Bavuma and Theunis de Bruyn have huge opportunities to step up.
For all of the success the Proteas had in the longest format last season, the majority of their batting displays were defined by efforts of resilience rather than dominance.
On no less than seven occasions last season the Proteas lost their first three wickets for under 50 runs. But it was never really an issue, because when Dean Elgar and Temba Bavuma didn’t get the side back on track with century stands, then Faf du Plessis and Quinton de Kock did. Potential scores of 200 turned into 350, and the bowlers did the rest.
My concern is that it’s not going to be a sustainable plan against world-class bowling attacks like England and Australia. They’re going to be tested more than ever in the coming weeks against the experience of Stuart Broad and James Anderson, the mercurial offerings of the pacey Mark Wood, and the reverse swing of Ben Stokes.
It’s going to take a collective effort from the top six, and with Du Plessis’ absence from Lord’s now confirmed, at least two of Duminy, Bavuma and De Bruyn will need to step up in his place to avoid more ‘rescue missions’.
There’s no reason why they can’t. We spoke of the same need to step up when AB de Villiers opted out of Tests last season. To a certain extent, Duminy did, coming in at No 4. His big centuries against Australia and Sri Lanka were instrumental in those victories, but more consistency will be required. Now it’s Bavuma’s turn, who will be coming in at No 5 for the first time in his Test career.
The biggest positive to come out of the drawn England Lions match was Bavuma’s form. He hit eight boundaries for his 85 not out off 148 balls. Some time spent in the middle, and the confidence he can take from doing so at a higher batting position will be a huge boost. His only Test century remains the one he scored at Newlands in January last year, but it was against the same pace attack he’ll be facing this week.
This might well be De Bruyn’s last chance to perform for the Proteas for some time, and he’ll be desperate to keep himself on the selector’s radar with a meaningful contribution at Lord’s. He’s expected to come in at No 6 and goes into it a bit starved of form of late. He’s a naturally attacking player, and he’ll feel more comfortable in the middle-order than when he was exposed as an opener on his debut.
In series gone by, middle-order consistency has played a huge part in keeping England at bay in the UK over the past 19 years. England haven’t beaten the South Africans at Lord’s since 1960, and if you wind the clock back to the Graeme Smith era, the 2003 clash saw four players score fifty-plus scores in the first innings, and in 2008 four players scored hundreds.
England will go into this series as favourites, but if the South African middle-order find the form that they so desperately crave at the highest level, the Proteas could prove to be a difficult side to break down.
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