Cape Town – Hindsight is a luxury, as ever … but the folly of the Proteas weakening rather than fortifying their already fragile batting department for the heavily-surrendered third Test against England at St George’s Park was badly exposed, in the final analysis.
South Africa opted for a five-strong bowling attack in Port Elizabeth, requiring promotion of Vernon Philander by one berth to No 7 after ditching all-rounder Dwaine Pretorius – at very least workmanlike at both trades in the first two Tests – and installing specialist medium-fast seamer Dane Paterson, a true tail-end batsman, for a debut.
While the Cape Cobras player fared creditably enough on paper with his one for 62 in 24 overs in England’s lone, monster innings of 499 for nine declared, he didn’t exactly strike terror into English batting hearts on the sluggish surface, either.
But the real bugbear in the home nation’s embarrassing reverse by an innings and 53 runs, once again, was the fragility of the supposedly frontline batting arsenal – a situation simply aggravated by the rightful perception (despite fits of defiance) that they also have a fluffy tail.
Yes, you need to do that “20 wickets” job to win a Test match – absolutely mandatory for the Proteas in the Bullring now if they are to somehow hit back, from Friday, for a 2-2 share of the series – but a solid platform of runs is just as vital and this team, frankly, keeps falling quite lamentably short of achieving healthy totals in either the first or second innings of Test matches.
If you include the St George’s Park Test, the Proteas have only gone above 300 once in their last eight first knocks: when they scored 431 despite eventual defeat to India in Visakhapatnam much earlier this season.
Their average first-innings total in the period in question, beginning with last season’s home series against Sri Lanka, hardly inspires confidence: 255.
But the second dig is just as unpalatable a business for the national side, the average score there dipping to 207.
On that basis, it hardly requires an ace mathematician to calculate that the Proteas are forlornly hoping to win Test matches with an average combined-innings tally of runs in recent times of 462 – just no way to topple the best sides in the business and hardly a guarantee of knocking over more modest foes, either.
It is that grim, glaring list of statistics that was too glibly overlooked, I would suggest, when the brains trust structured their XI for the Friendly City clash.
While the policy comes with its own risks, very clearly South Africa’s major priority at the Wanderers is going to have to be deepening the recognised batting as much as they can – quite possibly by returning to a clear-cut format of seven batsmen and four bowlers, unless versatile Pretorius earns a recall as a “semi-solution” to stiffening the batting on his home franchise ground.
The first-mentioned scenario would see the one consistently firing Proteas batsman at present, Quinton de Kock, either move one place back down himself to the No 7 slot where he traditionally prospers the best, or stay at six and have another out-and-out batsman take guard behind him.
Adding a specialist batsman, Temba Bavuma the logical first cab off rank as a returnee, would probably mean a reprieve at the Wanderers for everyone in the current batting arsenal, and potentially save Zubayr Hamza – arguably the prime candidate for the axe, if it is to come out – from wearing a side-line bib in the decisive clash.
The 24-year-old may have been promised the duration of the series, after all, although his five Tests in total so far have seen him post only 181 runs (mostly in the high-pressure No 3 berth) at an average of 18.10.
The brains trust could consider putting Hamza into a less rigorous slot a little further down the order in Johannesburg because Bavuma, sporting franchise-level confidence after his career-best 180 in Maritzburg a few days ago, has both the technical acumen and ticker to come in at first drop if asked to do so – he has played some of his best cricket in all formats this season when the ball is harder and coming onto the blade.
What about Keegan Petersen? The uncapped 26-year-old from the Knights is highly touted by several in the new national team hierarchy, and part of the extended squad in this series.
But is a pivotal closing Test in a major series really the right time to blood yet another inexperienced batting customer against England’s tails-up attack?
Bear in mind that the current frontline department features a now two-capper in Pieter Malan, plus Hamza (five appearances) and Rassie van der Dussen (three), so half of the current top six are very much still feeling their way into the unforgiving Test arena …
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