• The X and Y factor of AB

    The Proteas are well-placed to go 1-0 up in the series against Sri Lanka as they look to make inroads on India’s No 1 spot in the ICC Test rankings … but this Test is far from over, writes SIMON LEWIS.

    Considering the brittle nature of the Sri Lanka batting lineup and the power that the Proteas possess with ball in hand, victory in the first Test at Kingsmead seems a good bet. A win will come at just the right time for the Proteas as they press India for the position of No 1-ranked Test side in the world.

    While the heart yearns for Sri Lanka to crumble, the head cautions that it will take only one good fourth or fifth wicket partnership to put Sri Lanka in sight of victory … and if the tail wags they could sneak the win.

    Quite frankly, that will be a disaster of epic proportions for South African cricket, although it would be a self-inflicted injury, as the selectors have a gun locked and loaded pointing at their feet. Five bowlers are complete luxuries for the Proteas, considering the five-star quality of their bowling attack and the fragility of their top-order batsmen, especially if one can still remember the tour to Sri Lanka in July 2018 (I’m personally trying to erase that memory).

    READ ALSO: Burn the boats … there’s no turning back

    Ability? The Proteas batsmen have immense ability and have all proven themselves at the highest level. They are good guys and great cricketers, and each of them can point to some highly impressive, world-class performances with the bat. But something is not clicking into place at the moment for them as a collective.

    These batsmen should be performing better with the bat in order to do their talent and ability justice. It’s like watching musical chairs, as they seem to take turns to perform with no-one standing up as a consistent, regular performer. Is it that they are such a harmonious team that no-one wants to stand out as the star performer and hog the limelight?

    Quite frankly, on current performance, I’m really starting to feel that our only serious chance in the 2019 World Cup is if AB de Villiers gets a white-ball call-up from the CSA selectors. He hasn’t dominated the world T20 circuit by any means, but he is keeping his hand in, looking good and staying fresh while avoiding the grind of Test cricket.

    Even if AB doesn’t return, what the Proteas DESPERATELY need across white-ball and red-ball formats is ‘the Essence of AB’. The Proteas are missing the X Factor that AB brings to the party and we are left with only the Y Factor?

    ‘Y’ is this talented batting lineup not firing consistently?

    ‘Y’ have none of the established batsmen stood up to claim ownership of the title Best Batsman in the side?

    ‘Y’ would they select five bowlers in Kingsmead and expose their struggling batting lineup in such a manner?

    ‘Y’ would they take such a big risk in the first Test of a series?

    At home, against a Sri Lankan side fielding two Test debutants in their ranks (granted we should never underestimate the ability of a debutant), the Proteas have straggled on to post scores of 235 and 259. The top order has failed in the first innings (89-4 and 110-5), as well as the second innings (95-4) in this Test – and this against a side beaten and bashed around in Test cricket over the past two years.

    SRI LANKA’S TEST FORM – 2017-2019

    Opponent Winner Margin
    India Lost 1-0
    Bangladesh Won 1-0
    West Indies Drawn 1-1
    South Africa Won 2-0
    England Lost 3-0
    New Zealand Lost 1-0
    Australia Lost 2-0

    Sri Lanka has only beaten the Proteas and ninth-ranked Bangladesh in the past two years, and they have drawn with the eighth-ranked West Indies. They are currently ranked the sixth-best Test side on the ICC rankings, above Pakistan in seventh spot.

    READ ALSO: Mind the tail, Proteas

    Sri Lanka’s remaining batsmen have no form or statistical ‘oomph’ behind them to suggest they are any threat to knocking off the remaining 221 runs for the win at Kingsmead. This should be a cakewalk for the Proteas, but let’s remind ourselves … if two batsmen get stuck in at the crease, then a 50- or 100-run partnership can be scraped together in an hour or two to totally swing the balance of the match.

    Although they have had struggles with the bat, Sri Lanka are a proud cricketing nation, and with a sniff of victory in the air, they could grit it out to turn the tables on the Proteas in what would be a third humiliating Test defeat in a row.

    If the Proteas lose this match, I venture to say we will see a very different team for the second Test. They will need to call up a sixth batsman, and in addition one of the current top six would need to be rested, with perhaps an untested, older batsman who has been performing on the franchise circuit given a chance to prove himself. That would also bring in a new energy to the side, and new energy has certainly beefed up the Proteas’ white-ball performances in recent months.

    Or perhaps call David Miller out of self-imposed red-ball exile. That would be a high-risk call, but he would bring a special energy to the Test side, and if you’re going to take a gamble, then rather gamble on someone who has the DNA to go big, even in a format where he has not yet been tested.

    The bowlers might well save the batsmen’s bacon once again, but hopefully it will be a wake-up call for the Proteas to get their ducks in a row. Sneaking home for the win at Kingsmead might allow the selectors to hit the snooze button, and that would serve only to paper over the cracks in the top order.

    If this talented group of batsmen can’t urgently create some stability and consistency among themselves then, honestly, it really is time to petition for the return of AB de Villiers for the World Cup squad, or else the pain our hearts will remain until 2023.


    Photo: Ashley Vlotman/Gallo Images/Getty Images

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    Simon Lewis