The Proteas selectors have created a problem for themselves by replacing Stephen Cook with Theunis de Bruyn at the top.
Perhaps it was a ball that would have got Stephen Cook feeling for it, pitching short of a length and outside the off stump. With hard hands it was replacement De Bruyn who pushed at it, and the hard red cherry took the outside edge and nestled in the hands of the second slip.
South Africa went into the third and final Test match against New Zealand in Hamilton 1-0 up in the series, and with their feet on the throat of the hosts who were missing three key personnel in the injured Ross Taylor, Trent Boult and Tim Southee.
Consensus amongst the travelling media was that the staring XI would remain unchanged, but the selectors decided to give Theunis de Bruyn a debut, replacing Cook as opener. De Bruyn, a prolific domestic run-scorer, is not a natural opener. We’ve seen this movie before, most recently with Stiaan van Zyl. Batting him out of position was a failure, and it might well have cost him his Test career. Let’s hope they’re not selling De Bruyn down the river. Are there really no natural openers good enough for Test cricket in South Africa?
Cook, introduced to Test cricket at the late age of 33, had played 11 Tests, averaging 33.26. He’s had a tough time of it in New Zealand, scoring 3, 0, 3 and 11 in the first two Tests, but all in all has hit three hundreds and two fifties in his 19 innings to date.
In the Test that the Proteas won in Wellington, Cook was out, caught at second slip ‘fishing’ outside off stump. The Proteas selectors decided they’d seen enough and drafted De Bruyn into the starting line-up in Hamilton.
For those tuning in to a delayed start around 1am on Saturday morning (SA time), it might have seemed as though Cook was up to his usual: caught at second slip off Matt Henry from only the third ball he had faced and walking back to the pavilion for a duck.
The thing is, it wasn’t Cook, but the 24-year-old De Bruyn.
Suddenly, the South African selectors have created a problem for themselves. England loom large as a more serious test of the Proteas’ capabilities mid-year, and they will be on traditional seaming pitches where the likes of Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad look like world-beaters.
De Bruyn now has one more innings in New Zealand – weather permitting – to restore confidence that he is the man to take over from Cook, and what about Cook himself? Is this the end of his Test career? Because, having selected De Bruyn, the selectors now have to take De Bruyn to England, as an opener. That’s a huge call.
And what of JP Duminy, who scratched his way to 20 before getting himself out, hooking a ball that cramped him for room and being caught on the fine leg boundary?
Duminy has been batting at the crucial No 4 spot, but looks exposed in that position. He got himself out again in Hamilton, after being fortunate to get past seven when he was hit on the pads by Neil Wagner and given not out. Replays showed he would have been walking had the Kiwis reviewed.
The Proteas selectors have mostly got things right in the past 12 months, but on a truncated day one, when South Africa limped to 123-4 – with Hashim Amla, Faf du Plessis and Temba Bavuma showing that they weren’t batting on a minefield – the big questions have been raised around the top-order.
Who will go to England as Dean Elgar’s opening partner? What to do with Duminy, especially when AB de Villiers returns? These aren’t new questions, but now they will be pushed to the front of the mind. In the latest SA Cricket magazine I argued that Aiden Markram should become Elgar’s new batting partner and my opinion hasn’t changed one bit.
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