Proteas’ pace halo slipping

Dale Steyn (AFP)
Dale Steyn (AFP)

Cape Town – Make no mistake, if South Africa are to win the decisive second Test against Bangladesh in Dhaka from Thursday, their batsmen will need to smarten their acts significantly as well.

But with weather looking likely to interfere once more – hardly surprising considering the dubious monsoon-season scheduling of the mini-series – there is going to have to be a particularly urgent, focussed effort by their bowling attack to ensure they perform the key 20-wickets job in whatever time proves available.

The Bangladeshis will be fairly chuffed to have not only comfortably outscored the Proteas in the first innings of the rain-wrecked Chittagong encounter, but also (and unusually) outlasted them for durability at the crease by 116 overs to 83 in doing so.

Just by registering a decent 326 runs in that lone knock, the various stroke-players in the underdogs’ ranks will have taken heart regarding their prospects of, at the very least, not losing a series against these much-vaunted foes for the first time.

It will surprise me if South Africa make any changes, despite their imperfections in the first Test, to the line-up for Dhaka.

There were always going to be some cobwebs and associated perils after so many of their players had played little or no multi-day cricket since the New Year Test against West Indies at Newlands, and not having at least a two-day warm-up match before Chittagong was an ill-advised occurrence even if some troops had played in either or both of the preceding limited-overs series in Bangladesh.

Coach Russell Domingo and the rest of the touring strategists are to be commended at Chittagong not only for retaining faith in rookie middle-order batsman Temba Bavuma for a third Test cap – he earned a maiden, gutsy half-century under tricky circumstances – but also sticking to the plan initiated several months ago to try to remodel Stiaan van Zyl into a credible opening batsman and help plug the considerable holes left in pretty quick succession by Graeme Smith and Alviro Petersen.

In short, so far so good on that front.

Novice Dane Vilas for a labouring Quinton de Kock in the wicketkeeping berth? Perhaps there’s an outside chance, given De Kock’s current batting misery, but the incumbent is looking sprightly enough behind the stumps which should aid his retention cause.

The four-strong specialist bowling arsenal should be kept en masse as well; bear in mind that designated main spinner Simon Harmer has also only played two Test matches thus far but begun his career at this level decently with 10 scalps from three bowling innings at an average of 25.

His stock off-spinner is very much the dominant string to his bow, but he varies his pace intelligently and can certainly “fizz” the ball out of burgeoning rough.

Yet even with conditions clearly not nirvana-like for them – a common phenomenon on the Subcontinent, and the Proteas soon tackle India away over a marathon four Tests – is it too much to expect the three-pronged seam alliance to come more prominently into their own in Dhaka?

On that front, there remains at present a too-lopsided reliance on Dale Steyn (who needs one strike in the second Test to go to 400 wickets) for the major breakthroughs.

If South Africa are to cling to their increasingly tenuous mantle – some might protest the Australians have already stolen it back anyway – for “best pace attack in the world”, then Vernon Philander and Morne Morkel need to come back to the party in some haste.

It is not as though the pair are bowling badly: for instance, at times when Bangladesh were threatening to open up a bit in their reply to the Proteas’ disappointingly insufficient 248 in Chittagong, neither wavered to any alarming degree in discipline terms.

Philander was especially parsimonious as he returned 2/40 in 20 overs – that is excellent economy – but at the same time activity in the wickets column is increasingly drying up for him.

For proof of that you only have to, a little cruelly, weigh up his first seven Test matches with his most recent seven.

He picked up a dream-like 51 scalps in those sublime, early-career days, whereas his last seven games have seen him manage only 11 – pretty heavy going.

From nine five-wicket hauls in the first 15 of his 30 Tests thus far, he has failed to add a single one in the next 15.

Of course varying conditions do play a role, and we know he is at his vintage best when there is a vital bit of nip on offer: that was overwhelmingly the case in that productive first phase highlighted, which included two Tests at Newlands and one each at Centurion, Johannesburg, Dunedin, Hamilton and Wellington.

Since then his decline in dismissals has coincided, generally speaking, with deployment on tracks offering notably little in the way of “sideways”.

The lanky Morkel, who looks such a mature character now at one-day level, could perhaps also do with some fresh, morale-boosting activity in five-for terms in Tests: his last analysis of that kind came against the Aussies at Adelaide Oval (ironically not especially pace-friendly by tradition) in November 2012.

Maybe the answer is to more consciously let him operate in short, intense bursts of no more than four or five overs, and bowl as aggressively as he possibly can despite the challenges of a benign pitch.

Philander and Morkel, each 30 years old, are experienced enough by now to know how to pick up wickets in any conditions.

Some evidence from Thursday could come in mightily handy.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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