Mark Salter offers five points of discussion ahead of the second Test against Sri Lanka, at Newlands.
SCRATCHING THE SURFACE
The Proteas say they are happy bowling on a greentop, but in Port Elizabeth they certainly did miss the reverse swing, which is perhaps their greatest weapon. A solid covering of grass was left on to hold the wicket together and negate the spin of Rangana Herath in particular. But that not only took Keshav Maharaj out of the equation as well, but it stopped the ball from becoming rough and assisting reverse. As the wicket became flatter, the batsmen ruled. Abbott ‘is hoping’ that conditions at Newlands will be different. All will be revealed Monday morning, but it looks as if it will be pretty close to the St George’s strip. Last time out at Newlands (v England), batsmen were untroubled. There was a double hundred and an extra ton for each side as 1 256 runs were scored in the first two innings.
THE MISSING 20 PER CENT
Captain Faf du Plessis is refreshingly honest in his appraisal of his team, saying they are operating at 80 per cent of their potential. It may seem churlish on the back of a 206-run win, but it is something they need to take seriously. Du Plessis was mainly concerned about the batting, particularly in the first innings when, despite the difficult conditions, he felt they were 50 runs shy of what they should have had. But there are other points: the oft-times sloppy fielding (Stephen Cook’s drop being the lowlight) and the wasted reviews (Quinton de Kock’s call against Angelo Mathews being the worst). Du Plessis sincerely believed that had the Sri Lankans not given away soft wickets, they could have chased down that record total of 488. Other teams will not be so forgiving. If the Proteas want to be No 1, they have to find that missing 20 per cent and use it.
LIVING ON THE EDGE
Faf du Plessis made light of it at the end of the first Test, praising the four bowlers for their incredible work rate and effort. But he made the point that they have to hit their line and length from the off, and ‘obviously, we hope that one of them doesn’t break down’. The thought is too awful to contemplate. The talk is that Temba Bavuma has been practising his seamers with the help of bowling coach Charl Langeveldt. Jokes aside, it is a scary thought: the workload of the missing bowler would have to be shared between the spin of JP Duminy (38 wickets from 40 matches; average 38.73) and Dean Elgar (13 from 30, average 41.6) and Bavuma (1 from 15, average 30). Kyle Abbott says Bavuma is ‘waiting in the wings, ready to cut loose’. Or we could pray for rain.
AND ANOTHER ‘WHAT-IF?‘
On the subject of ghastly scenarios, what if Quinton de Kock broke down? Who would you put behind the stumps? JP Duminy did a sterling job for the Proteas against the Springboks in the Nelson Mandela Legacy match recently, making one very sharp stumping and one more relaxed effort, but Du Plessis may need him as a bowler. Could they put Bavuma there? After all, he fields at short leg, so he has the eye and the reactions. Or they could rotate. Zimbabwe’s Tatenda Taibu did that, ironically against Sri Lanka, when he shed his wicketkeeping kit to take the ball and break the opening stand of 281 with his third ball in Test cricket. Duminy and Bavuma may also have a better eye for a review…
THE BLOSSOMING OF THE PROTEAS
Four months is a long time in cricket, and it also shows the vagaries of the ICC Test rankings. Hard to believe that this confident, well-led team were ranked seventh in August 2016. That was shortly before the New Zealand series. If the Proteas secure this series against Sri Lanka and Australia wipe out Pakistan, the South Africans will be back in third. They could even be second if Pakistan win the third Test and the Proteas sweep Sri Lanka.