Proteas: Their faltering top five

Cape Town - The good news is that Quinton de Kock seems to be increasingly answering former national captain Graeme Smith's plea for him to take bigger responsibility with the blade in the lower middle-order of the Proteas' Test team.

The negative, however, is that South Africa's top five broadly continue to underwhelm in the five-day landscape - something that noticeably impeded them again on day one of the first Test against unsung Sri Lanka at Kingsmead on Wednesday.

There is plenty of time yet for the host nation to stabilise and potentially even take decisive charge in this contest, but they are certainly on the unbudgeted back foot as we speak.

By being bundled out for an insufficient 235 in their first knock - inside 60 overs - after being asked to take first strike by the 'Lankans, there was really just further confirmation that the SA specialist batting department hardly looks made of the stuff to propel them back to No 1 in the world.

Although the Proteas lie second in the pecking order, they share a hallmark with most other challengers to India's current, fairly clear-cut ascendancy of simply looking too unreliable at the crease to warrant heading the pile.

South Africa, England, Australia ... all of them are characterised by instability and/or underachievement amidst their supposedly pivotal top fives in the order.

The Proteas were indebted on Wednesday to De Kock, operating at No 6, comfortably top-scoring with a purposeful and sometimes typically brazen 80 to carry them to something vaguely resembling a workable total.

It was an encouraging follow-up to his last Test vigil, a second-innings 129 (then from No 7) in the closing Wanderers clash with Pakistan, and suggested a mounting level of maturity.

The SA top order was all too quickly reduced to tatters at 17 for three - good starts have become elusive, often causing a domino effect - although the home cause was dealt a cruel hand with the rotten luck that accounted for both Faf du Plessis and Temba Bavuma when they looked promisingly like righting the ship.

The captain got one of those irksome leg-side feathers to a delivery that hardly deserved a wicket, while Bavuma, who had looked the most technically and mentally at ease of all the specialist batsmen en route to 47, was run out at the non-striker's end by less than an inch after a De Kock drive deflected off the bowler's foot and onto the stumps with the little scrapper scrambling unsuccessfully to get back to safety.

Yet for all that, statistical evidence uncomfortably mounts to suggest that the Proteas may soon need to contemplate some corrective surgery (or read: changes) in their supposedly cream batting slots.

It is true that they have played quite a lot of home Test activity this season on overly challenging, often untrustworthy pitches, but Wednesday's could more accurately be described as reasonably helpful (in the first half of the day, especially) to seam bowling: not much more than that.

A trend only balloons, statistically, in demonstrating that heavy scoring, and more particularly the amassing of centuries, has not been happening to anything like desired levels in Test cricket for close to a year by South Africa.

Certainly consistency has gone AWOL among most Proteas batsmen in the period since the highly satisfying 3-1 home Test series conquest of Australia at the end of the 2017/18 season.

Between the top five being employed in the current Test against Sri Lanka, there has been a flimsy, lone three-figure score by a South African in the period spanning the series in Sri Lanka, the just-completed three-Test home one against Pakistan, and now the first Proteas innings of the short, present series. It was Du Plessis' first-knock 103 in the Newlands Test against the Pakistanis.

Bavuma apart (as he has stayed more or less in line with his mid-thirties overall Test average and often looked better recently than his returns have shown), the South African front five have been collectively marked by declining figures in the five-day landscape.

During the period in question, for example, now seasoned opener Dean Elgar has had a particularly tough time of it, notching only 175 runs from 11 innings since the mid-July first Test against the Lankans at Galle at an average of 17.50.

Partner Aiden Markram hasn't been significantly better in the spell, producing 252 runs at 25.20.

Meanwhile the gradual slip from once lofty terrain of veteran Hashim Amla also stubbornly continues: he has made just over 250 runs himself, going back to Galle, at 28.00 and his last century was all of 27 innings ago - against Bangladesh at Bloemfontein in October 2017.

This is currently his longest career trot without one.

Bavuma has been the most solid-performing of the five, amassing 312 runs at 34.66, although he is going to have to start reaching three figures more regularly if he aspires to regular stationing at blue-chip No 4: his poignant one and only Test ton, against England at Newlands, is now 48 innings ago.

Du Plessis? His 246 runs stretching back to Galle similarly come at a less than wow-inducing 30.75, significantly below his career average of a touch under 42.

Mediocrity, at best, is a worryingly well-developed hallmark among the Proteas' intended premier batsmen, and the national selectors and coaches should be starting to get restless about it.

They need to see certain performance curves switching directions for northward, and ideally sooner rather than later ...

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing
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