Losing to Sri Lanka in the first Test at Kingsmead is a dark day for South African cricket, but it offers the opportunity for a bright new top order, writes SIMON LEWIS.
For a team that has the qualities that South Africa possess, losing to Sri Lanka at home should not be on the cards. Granted, when a batsman or a bowler from ANY team plays one of the great performances of their lives (and a performance of all-time greatness), then you have to hold up your hand as the opposition and applaud.
Kusal Perera’s 153 not out is already carved in stone as one of the great Test batting performances of all time, so in many ways the fact that the Proteas lost should not be an indictment on the players or their performance.
To some extent, it was just one of those things. Very well played, Kusal – and thank you for the memories!
There is much criticism online already slating some of the Proteas’ bowling performances and tactics, as well as Faf’s captaincy. Some of that might be justified, while some comments are perhaps a knee-jerk reaction to a disappointing result.
One thing is certain, however, and it is something Faf said after the match: the Proteas were light on runs.
‘I think we were 50 runs short in the first innings and another 30-50 in the second,’ Du Plessis said after the match.
So easy to speak with hindsight, but if the Proteas had another batsman in the side for Kingsmead then the chance of adding those extra 30-50 runs each innings would have been pretty good.
The selectors’ call to choose just five specialist batsmen was beyond risky, and the risk exploded in their face. It took a sensational batting display from Perera (brilliantly supported by a couple of his team-mates) to set that explosion off, so the selectors will feel that the luck was against them, but it was still a very big risk.
In fact, without going to the record books, I don’t recall a side ever fielding five specialist bowlers (with all due respect to Vernon Philander’s batting ability – Test average 24.03).
While Saturday 16 February was a brilliant day for Test cricket, it will remain a dark day for South African cricket. This performance was not good enough, but don’t blame the bowlers – the five of them were superb in the first innings and for much of the second innings. However, they have had to shoulder the burden for pulling off wins or draws on countless occasions when the batsmen have been light on runs.
The Proteas batsmen are under-performing. Full stop.
Every great cricket nation goes through dark days, sometimes weeks. South Africa is a great cricket nation and this is a great team, but something is going seriously wrong and has done for some time. The Proteas selectors have a tough task ahead of them in the next day or two, as there is just one more Test match to come before more than six months of white ball action.
What to do?
Give the current batting line-up another crack, a last chance?
Blood new players … but for just one match before a long break?
I believe either Theunis de Bruyn or Zubayr Hamza would have added a great deal to this Test match, but I wouldn’t bring either of them back just yet, as I have my eye on a new opening batsman for the second Test at St George’s Park.
To start with, the selectors need to make the tough call and pick just four bowlers – although, with Philander possibly injured, that might make the decision a lot easier. If we’re going to bring in an opening batsmen then the obvious decision would be Pieter Malan, who was on standby when Aiden Markram was injured after the Newlands Test.
Malan deserves it, definitely … but I would call up the Warriors’ 25-year-old opener Edward Moore. Wow! Bit of a wildcard, you might say. And you would be right.
Moore possibly doesn’t ‘deserve’ a call-up just yet, and he may or may not be ready for the five-day (aka four-day) game at this stage, but I’d call him up because he finished second on the run-scoring charts (just two runs behind the Knights’ prolific Keegan Petersen) in the 4-Day Franchise Series – and he was the top-scoring opening batsman in the competition.
Also, he plays for the Warriors, and there isn’t a Warriors player in the Proteas Test setup at the moment. I’m not advocating ‘franchise quotas’ with this selection, but I do feel that having someone from the missing sixth franchise in the side could bring a fresh energy into the dressing room that, even if he doesn’t do much with the bat, his presence and what it symbolises might rub off on the other batsmen.
Hey, if you’re willing to risk selecting five bowlers for the first Test of a series then I think you could just as easily take a risk on the top-scoring batsman in domestic cricket (well, three runs off being numero uno).
Selecting Moore will motivate all the other non-Proteas players to play out of their skin as they will see that a call-up is on the cards if they score the runs or take the wickets. The MSL has already done that superbly.
Secondly, his selection will remind each and every single Proteas top-order batsman that they can be ‘rested’ if they don’t score runs consistently. Potential and ability and past performances are irrelevant – if you aren’t scoring the runs today then let’s give someone else a chance to see if they can.
There are a lot of players around South Africa who reckon they can score runs in the Proteas top-order … and perhaps the Proteas batsmen need that injection of Darwinian competition to lift their game.
There are currently two Proteas batsmen who, I believe, are one match away from ‘the drop’, if the selectors become ruthless. However, considering that there is just one more Test match before half a year of white ball action, let’s not go for massive changes just yet – rather, let’s bring a sixth batsman in and just shuffle things around.
Simon Lewis’ Proteas side for the second Test
- Dean Elgar
- Edward Moore
- Temba Bavuma
- Aiden Markram
- Faf du Plessis
- Hashim Amla
- Quinton de Kock
- Keshav Maharaj
- Dale Steyn
- Kagiso Rabada
- Duanne Olivier
OK, so there could be a lot of egg on my face if things go egg-shaped, but with the Proteas already 1-0 down in the series, I’m willing to take a few risks.
Opening with two lefties – well, a left-right combo always sounds better, but who cares. I think this pair would be great at building a slow, solid and steady start to the innings. Give the Proteas a bit of a platform for once and see off the new ball (an ‘old school’ concept).
Bavuma at three – well, big call, but statistically he has been one of the Proteas’ best-performing batsmen over the past year, so I’d be willing to forgive him if he fails as number three in the second Test. However, one of the problems he has had in his career is that he is often not out at the end of the innings or having to force the pace with the tail as the innings draws to a close.
Number three is foreign to him, but he’s a professional cricketer. Give it a crack, Temba, and show South Africa what you can do when you have dozens of overs available to you.
Markram at four … yes, please. Great batsman, so stylish and accomplished, but for my money he’s rushing things too much at the moment as an opener. He’s batting at a rollicking strike-rate of 64.97 in Tests which is, rather unusually, higher than his strike-rate in first-class cricket (60.89).
In fact, Markram’s Test strike-rate is higher than that of batting greats such as AB de Villiers, Kevin Pietersen, Ricky Ponting, Brian Lara, Graeme Smith and Hashim Amla.
Yes, he is at the start of his career still, so that strike-rate might change over time, but at the moment he is scoring his runs REALLY FAST. While this is in keeping with the Proteas’ spirit of positive cricket, the problem I have with this is that, as an opening batsman, if you’re pushing hard at the bowling then you become more susceptible to losing your wicket.
The number three and four batsmen like it when their openers take a bit of the shine off the ball, but that’s not happening with the Proteas top-order at the moment.
While Markram’s Test average is still a healthy 44.13, his form in the last 8 months or so hasn’t been what we were expecting it would be after the incredible start he had to his Test career. You can debate the reasons for this for hours but, for my money, I’d slot him in at four and away from the new ball. Let the lefties build a solid foundation, let Temba groove away and do his thing … and just imagine if Markram comes walking out to the middle with the score on 80-2 or 100-2.
Let that happen and I think this lad will challenge Virat Kohli for the top spot!
Faf at five … next!
Hashim at six … yes, please. While the Great One has come good with a few solid innings in the last month, his overall form hasn’t been great over the past few months, and he’s not looking confident at the crease. Perhaps a change of scene would work wonders for him. Let him breeze to the crease when the score is past 200 and then get to work pounding the opposition to dust.
Bringing in a new face (Moore) and changing things around is going to give this group of really talented batsmen a chance to explore new roles and opportunities. Quite frankly, there’s no way I can see them scoring less than they did at Kingsmead, so let’s be bold and give it a go.
There’s absolutely nothing to lose at this stage … but it might just give the selectors some food for thought about how these players can line up at the World Cup in a few months time.
Photo: Ashley Vlotman/Gallo Images