• Is Phangiso really a Test spinner?

    The last time Aaron Phangiso played in a first-class match was last October against the Knights in Potchefstroom.

    It was the 60th match of a first-class career that started exactly 10 years earlier.

    Now 31 years-old, Phangiso plays an average of six first-class matches per year. His average in that format is 35.20 runs per wicket and he takes a wicket every 67.2 balls. Digest those statistics for a second. And remember that this is South African domestic cricket.

    Turning out for the Highveld Lions in that four-day match nearly eight months ago, he took 2-52 in the first innings and 2-69 in the second in a losing cause.

    Last week Phangiso was named as one of two spinners in the Proteas Test squad that will tour Bangladesh. On the basis of what? That he’s a great guy – which by all accounts he is? The Proteas are the No1 -ranked Test playing nation in the world but Phangiso has not proved himself nearly as effective in first-class cricket as he is in T20 and 50-overs.

    I feel desperately for Phangiso. For it was he who was taken to the 50-over World Cup earlier this year as part of the 15-man squad. Few questioned his inclusion. His was a merit call. He was the only black African in that squad and yet he was the only player not to get a game. The system let him down at the World Cup and it’s again going to let him down when the Test team plays in Bangladesh.

    Dane Piedt, who took 8-152 on debut to win the Man of the Match award against Zimbabwe last year, was not selected for Bangladesh, with Phangiso’s spinning partner being Simon Harmer. Piedt has magnanimously accepted his absence from the tour, saying that he ‘wouldn’t want to go undercooked after returning from an injury that sidelined him for many months and he’d like to be picked as an in-form player’. It’s said that he hasn’t fully recovered. Fair enough, but then Imran Tahir should have gone as the No 1 spinner to Bangladesh, getting sub-continent action ahead of the more important India series in October and November.

    Piedt is an exciting prospect and an off-spinner who puts real revolution on the ball. Phangiso doesn’t. He’s a left-armer who bowls accurately and keeps the run-rate down by bowling wicket to wicket. He’s not a strike bowler in the longer form of the game. And, the point is, he’s 31, not 21.

    He has taken six T20I wickets for the Proteas with a best of 3-25 and his economy rate of 8.66 at an average of 26.00 isn’t all that expensive when one considers that it’s a batsman’s paradise. His 14 ODI matches have seen him take 15 wickets, with an economy rate of 4.55 at an average of 38.20.

    With cricket being such a game of statistics and averages, that points to a story that for Phangiso, he’s a better T20 bowler than he is in the ODI arena, and then first-class comes next, which makes one wonder just why the selectors view him as a Test spinner.

    The further problem for Phangiso is that no matter what he does against Bangladesh in the two-Test series, he’s on a hiding to nothing. He can take 9-90 in an innings and yet the critics will still argue ‘it’s only Bangladesh’. And will the selectors, even if Phangiso takes 9-90, back him to play Test matches against India a couple of months later, or revert to Tahir, backed up by Simon Harmer and Piedt? The latter is more likely.

    The real issue is that once selected for the World Cup, the selectors should have picked Phangiso, even if it was only against Ireland or the UAE. They didn’t and now they might be trying to right a wrong with another wrong – and that’s to thrust the left-arm orthodox bowler into the top Test-playing unit in the world, without being able to back up the decision by pointing to wickets or form in the first-class arena.

    Dealing with transformation and ‘targets’ is, admittedly, a unique and thankless task. It’s said that there are no quotas at national level, but it’s hard to explain how Phangiso is in that Test squad without asking the question of whether he’s there for that reason only. Transformation is necessary but there’s a good way and a bad way of going about it. The inclusion of Kagiso Rabada and Temba Bavuma are good examples. Phangiso is a bad one in the Test context.

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    Gary Lemke