Much was made of England’s trouncing of Test world champions New Zealand but this Proteas bowling lineup won’t surrender to ‘Bazball’ so meekly, writes RYAN VREDE, who also picks his XI to beat England.
Following the aforementioned series, which England won convincingly off the back of their much-hyped aggressive batting philosophy, I wrote that the Proteas would be no pushovers in the three-Test series starting on Wednesday.
This assertion was based primarily on the strength of the tourists’ bowling attack when compared to the Black Caps’ aging and skill-deficient one.
Much of the buildup to the Test series has centered around whether the Proteas could counter Bazball, a description derived from head coach Brendon McCullum’s nickname and expressed in the aggressive manner he approached his innings.
It strikes me as odd that the Proteas would be seen as the underdogs by much of the English media. This, after all, is a team who has risen from seventh in the Test rankings two years ago to currently occupying top spot in the World Test Championship.
They come into this series having beaten India at home and drawn away with New Zealand. Much of that success can be attributed to their potency with the ball.
Notably, both Simon Harmer and Anrich Nortje didn’t feature in those series. The duo undoubtedly make the attack even better.
Harmer offers the Proteas vast experience and a record of success in English conditions, having dominated county cricket with Essex for five seasons. Nortje appears to have recovered from a series of injuries that compromised him for nearly a year. His return will lift pressure off the premier seamer, Kagiso Rabada, and provide the Proteas with a match-defining force with the new or old ball.
England’s batting is certainly impressive. Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow, in particular, have the ability to determine the course of a match in a session. They bat deep, too, with Ben Stokes and Sam Billings walking in at Nos 6 and 7, respectively.
But, again, the Proteas’ attack is not New Zealand’s, or indeed that of India, who missed Ravichandran Ashwin in the fifth Test of the Covid-halted series in Birmingham.
England’s new-look opening pair of Alex Lees and Zak Crawley are talented but technically vulnerable, while Ollie Pope at No 3 is crippled by inconsistency. In light of this, the Proteas have the resources to consistently expose Root and Bairstow to pressure situations, and restrict them if needed, in ways neither New Zealand nor India could.
The tourists’ challenge will be to find the same potency with the willow. The Proteas have started Test series slowly in this regard, and it accounted for first-Test defeats by India and New Zealand. The pressure that would come from losing the first of a three-Test series in England would be immense. They have to start well with the bat to avoid this scenario.
In this context, the selectors have some tough calls to make, particularly if they opt to play two spinners.
In this scenario, Aiden Markram, Rassie van der Dussen and Khaya Zondo are likely to battle for one spot in the middle order. The trio all contributed in the warm-up match against the England Lions last week, but I’d expect Van der Dussen to start in what would likely be his last chance to transfer his white-ball talent to the Test stage (last season, he scored 214 runs in nine innings at 23.78 and hasn’t scored a Test fifty since June 2021).
There’s also the chance that Ryan Rickleton drops out of the mix to accommodate either Zondo or Markram, but the side loses X factor with such a move.
It all makes for what should be a compelling series, and one in which the Proteas can establish their standing as a global Test superpower.
VREDE’S PROTEAS TEST XI
Dean Elgar (c)
Easy pick. Comfortably the Proteas’ most consistent batsman. Big temperament, big talent.
Inconsistent but has shown glimpses of his class. Could thrive in English conditions where the ball comes on nicely.
Missed the series against Bangladesh but the find of the summer comes back into the mix.
Rassie van der Dussen
Van der Dussen is supremely gifted, but he needs an immense series against elite opposition to make him feel like he isn’t an impostor at this level. Got a feeling in my bones that this is that series.
Brings X factor to the middle order and must be encouraged to play with freedom. He is a game-defining force.
I was a big advocate for this kid when Quinton de Kock retired, but he hasn’t translated his domestic excellence into Test dominance. Yet. He needs a big series or the Proteas should look elsewhere.
Adds variety to the seam attack and depth to the batting. Needs better and more consistent contributions with the bat. Immense potential that, if realised, could significantly amplify the Proteas’ threat.
Takes wickets for fun in England. Absolute no-brainer no matter at which ground they play. More than competent with the bat.
Yeah, I’m sticking with the two-spinner approach. Maharaj’s tactical versatility – he can hold or attack – makes him an indispensable starting team member. Like Harmer, really useful with the bat.
England will find him a different proposition to the aging New Zealand pace attack they’ve dismissed with disdain. If KG is feeling it, he could be the most important factor in the series.
Making his way back from a serious injury, and the break between series will help that healing process. Massive for this team, given his ability to take the new ball, for him to come in at first change and bowl multiple, elongated spells without his speed dropping off.