South Africa’s top-order has failed miserably in New Zealand.
While the Proteas were staring down the barrel of defeat after New Zealand bullied them on the fourth day of the final Test in Hamilton, it’s not difficult to see what has been South Africa’s problem all series.
Sure, Faf du Plessis’ men return home with winning the series 1-0 after rain washed out the fifth day’s play, but England’s new-ball bowlers will be licking their lips ahead of their own four-Test series which begins at Lord’s in July.
In six innings during the series against New Zealand, the Proteas’ highest opening stand has been 18 and much-criticised JP Duminy has also been exposed early to the new ball, coming in at the fall of the second wicket. It shows just how much AB de Villiers was missed as he took his sabbatical.
Let some stats sink in just for a moment as South Africa found themselves 80-5 in Hamilton, still 95 runs away from avoiding a humiliating innings defeat, before the rain came. And, before we marvel at the way New Zealand have bowled, we must remind ourselves that they have operated all series with a weakened attack, missing both Trent Boult and Tim Southee for two of the three Tests and in the last two Tests have opened with Colin de Grandhomme who has been operating at 125km/h with the new ball.
In the drawn first Test, South Africa’s top-order were 10-1, 20-2 and 22-3 in the first innings and 1-0 and 2-39 in the second innings.
In the second Test, won by South Africa in a match where the Kiwis were now also missing Ross Taylor, the top-order were 12-1, 12-2 and 26-3 in the first innings and 18-1 and 48-2 in the second innings.
The selectors responded by dropping Stephen Cook and replacing him with the middle-order specialist Theunis de Bruyn for the final Test. In this match South Africa were 5-1 and 5-2 in the first innings and 13-1 and 25-2 in the second innings.
So, before we are quick to send Duminy into the wilderness – admittedly he has been poor at No 4, scoring 104 runs at an average of 20.80 – let’s perhaps pose the question that he is batting a place too high in the order, especially given the failure of the top order. Or, perhaps I am being overly kind to Duminy – once called ‘the next Sachin Tendulkar’ by an over-eager South African reporter after that 166 in Melbourne in 2008. After 45 Tests, Duminy averages 33.64 and in all honesty, that’s too low a figure for a top-order batsman in this modern era.
Dean Elgar has top-scored for South Africa this series, with 265, but take away that fine 140 and his other five innings have produced 125 runs at an average of 25. Cook scored 17 runs in four innings, averaging 4.25, De Bruyn had a 0 and 12 in his debut Test, while Hashim Amla has scored 153 runs from his six knocks, but remove a high score of 50 and his remaining average is just 20.6.
With England looming, and a new-ball attack that will make the ball swing around in seamer-friendly conditions, the South African selectors will have some soul-searching to do, while also explaining why they exposed the promising De Bruyn to the new ball in Hamilton. He even came out to bat with no personalised number on his Proteas shirt, which suggests it was a last-minute decision to call him up.
Despite being on 12 before he was run out as Amla pushed a ball defensively past the bowler, and then stayed in the stroke for long enough for De Bruyn to turn his back on him, before having to respond to Amla’s call for an unnecessary single, it wasn’t the best 12 you’ll see him play.
De Bruyn has a grip which sees his hands far apart on the handle and his [bottom] right hand is strong. He doesn’t have what is termed ‘soft hands’ and pushes hard at the ball wide of off-stump – he did however, have a few good ‘leaves’ – while his feet don’t move well early on. The result is that he’s likely to keep the wicketkeeper and the slips interested with every ball when he opens the batting.
So where to now for South Africa’s selectors? Will they next feed De Bruyn to the English lions, and will they make the big call on Duminy?
The top-order apart, the other burning question is what happened to Vernon Philander’s bowling in New Zealand? De Grandhomme, a poorer version of Big Vern, already has six wickets at 24.83 runs apiece. Philander has picked up two wickets at an average of 101.50, to be 13th on the bowlers’ list and ahead of only Temba Bavuma and Elgar.
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