In or out, Kallis holds the key

2009-12-09 00:00

CAPE TOWN — Jacques Kallis will be a central figure in South Africa’s strategic planning and possibly even fortunes for the first Test against England next week — whether he takes the field at Centurion or not.

His fitness remains a touch-and-go issue and, despite the assurance I got from his manager and confidant, Dave Rundle, on Monday that he “is improving” with a view to next Wednesday, I understand the Proteas are bracing for the prospect that “go” at SuperSport Park, sadly, is pretty unlikely.

For all the public stick they have taken in recent weeks — related to South Africa’s failure in the Champions Trophy and then surprise concession of the one-day series to the English — the Proteas brains trust are no fools and likely to be guided only by sound medical opinion on whether their prize all-rounder can be risked for the key opening salvo in the four-Test series.

It is a delicate balancing act because, even as experts race against time to repair Kallis’s fractured rib, a complicated array of options faces Mickey Arthur and company regarding the presence or absence of the team’s “rock”.

The essential balance to the XI that Kallis brings has been documented ad nauseam. But shuffling the cards correctly should he cry off Centurion has assumed special importance considering the need for the Proteas not to be forced on to the back foot immediately, as they were in conceding the first completed ODI at the very same venue.

Many of the same faces who contested the ODIs will, of course, be present again for the Tests and the current sense of unease around the national side will only increase if they quickly go 1-0 down … as happened, incidentally, in Port Elizabeth when they lost the corresponding series on our soil 2-1 in 2004/05.

Perhaps we will get bleak confirmation fairly shortly that Kallis is out, with a fresh target set of getting him ready to bat and bowl for the Boxing Day Test at Kingsmead.

In that case, the Proteas must decide which of their batting or bowling arsenal to reduce, and it is likelier that they will more willingly trim the latter.

There is bound to be an ongoing lobby suggesting that AB de Villiers assume the gloves from Mark Boucher, making a “rebalanced” side a fairly tempting possibility.

But, although I advocated a horses-for-courses approach for the final ODI in Durban (eventually rained off) with De Villiers my temporary ‘keeping solution, Test match demands are rather different and the veteran incumbent should not be axed.

South Africa may well opt to hand specialist batsman Alviro Petersen a Test debut, his skills and general attitude having made a powerful impression in the one-day camp.

The question then is whether to station him at No. 5, where he did so well in the ODIs, or ask him to open with Graeme Smith and put eternal yo-yo Ashwell Prince, supposedly intended as a remodelled opener himself now, back in his favoured middle berth.

I have a feeling that a non-Kallis line-up will look like this, with JP Duminy perhaps asked to be fifth bowler for the moment (he is capable of 10 or 12 competent overs of off-spin a day, you would think): Smith, Petersen, Amla, De Villiers, Prince, Duminy, Boucher, Harris, M. Morkel, Steyn, Ntini.

South Africa would certainly be nervous going in with only three seamers and an alternative option, maybe, is to introduce Ryan McLaren for a debut of his own, at the expense of left-arm spinner Paul Harris, which would mean four seamers plus Duminy, and McLaren a potentially useful batting tool at No. 8.

McLaren has the potential to become the sort of bowler Shaun Pollock was in mid-to-late-career: a pressure-builder who nags away diligently in the right areas.

But that would be desperately hard on the effervescent Harris, whose last Test match saw him earn nine Australian wickets and man-of-the-match, admittedly at slightly more spin-friendly Newlands.

There is still one more source of pre-Test head-scratching, albeit a nunlikely one: the possibility that the medical experts might convince the Proteas honchos that Kallis is rehabilitated enough to play as a batsman only, and that doing so will not markedly endanger his prospects of resuming full duties in Durban.

A sensible argument, as already advanced by selection chief Mike Procter, is that you are either fit to play a Test or you are not … but you could also submit that a batting Kallis, if deemed healthy enough to do so, is better than none at all.

His mere presence in a Test arena means an awful, awful lot to his country.

If there is a compelling medical argument that JH Kallis can operate as half a cricketer at Centurion, South Africa should think long and hard about grasping the opportunity in jittery times for them.

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