Cape Town – Is an instinctive “attacker” the correct way to go? Or should the Proteas be more committed to “defence” in the position?
That may sound more like parlance from some kind of footballing debate, but it is relevant to the national Test cricket team … and more specifically the issue of the second all-rounder to Vernon Philander in the lower middle-order.
At least for the time being, it seems as though South Africa have decided to sacrifice their seven-batsmen formula, which meant they were formerly curtailed to fielding only four specialist bowlers.
In some circumstances, a quartet can be enough to perform the all-important task of taking 20 wickets in five-day contests, but drama can creep in unpleasantly if one bowler gets injured or ill during a match and the load becomes near-insufferable for the remaining trio, albeit possibly aided from some emergency dibbly-dob stuff from players who wouldn’t ordinarily bowl at all.
Such a scenario hugely heightens the risk of failing to bowl out the opposition twice, whilst the four-bowler limitation is also far from ideal in situations where Tests are played back to back and the same attack is be pressed into service for both matches, raising durability and stamina issues.
There seems reasonably widespread approval, then, for the recent rebalancing of the SA Test team, even as the frontline batting collectively shows worrying, lingering evidence of inconsistency.
But it still leaves the question of exactly what type of bowling all-rounder is the best fit: should he be a genuine “strike” figure – the suit incumbent Chris Morris certainly fits, by nature – or perhaps a bit more of a patient, run-strangling character?
After all, in his later years of glittering versatile service, Jacques Kallis was really the fifth element of the bowling line-up and, with his pace considerably down on his younger years, also tended to put more of a focus on containment which freed whoever was operating at the other end to be more attack-minded.
With Morris in the bowling division as the new “extra guy”, we have seen deeply confusing signals, over the course of the contrasting Trent Bridge and Oval Tests, on whether his traditional, up-and-at-‘em characteristics really suit the team’s needs.
In short, he’s had one notably good (Nottingham) and one near-rank bad (The Oval) Test on this tour so far, meaning that the decisive clash at Old Trafford from Friday – South Africa must win to share the series – could yet come to represent some kind of tipping point for Morris in the Test set-up.
At Trent Bridge (a handsome 340-run victory) he was in the game, as they say, to a pleasingly enduring extent: he scored a commendably measured – somewhat against his instincts – 36 in South Africa’s first knock of 335, cleaned up the English tail in their reply for an analysis of 3/38, and then in the second innings ripped out the hosts’ two most treasured names at the crease, Alastair Cook and skipper Joe Root.
Morris’s contribution was well beyond encouraging … but then he promptly undid all those personal gains in a follow-up display in London characterised by bowling “beehives” in both innings from the lanky 30-year-old that looked as if they might have exploded, such was his inaccuracy and failure to sustain pressure.
He was the Proteas’ worst liability, to be blunt, in England’s first-innings advance in challenging conditions for batting to 353 all out, leaking at almost five and a half runs to the over en route to unflattering figures of 1/91 in 17 overs.
The 2/70 from 11 overs that he returned in the home team’s push-things-on second turn at the crease looked more like figures from a bowler who’d suffered some tap in a one-day international, never mind a Test match.
So who is the real Chris Morris?
Well, perhaps it is too early anyway to be making a definitive judgement: assuming he cuts the retention nod for Old Trafford, it will still only represent his fifth Test appearance.
In all the international formats, Morris has shown more than mere glimpses of his excitement factor, if you like, as he likes to charge in full-heartedly in his bowling style – he ought to only get progressively wiser, too, in his ongoing “education” with the Dukes ball -- and is an increasingly clean, lusty striker of the ball when he is at the crease, especially in limited-overs cricket with its clear-the-ropes needs.
He’s just got something … something that makes you feel, warts and all, that he adds value.
But I’d also wager that if he proves fatally wild and woolly all over again in the vital Manchester date, the Proteas brains trust may well begin to just train their thoughts a tad to the possibility of introducing, instead, a more containing type of seamer all-rounder for future needs.
If you argued that the current frontline bowling quartert of Morne Morkel, Vernon Philander, Kagiso Rabada and left-arm spinner Keshav Maharaj offer enough in the way of X-factor and breakthrough clout, then the alternative claims to Morris of men like Andile Phehlukwayo and Dwaine Pretorius could come under increased scrutiny if Morris falls short of expectations again, in this red-letter Test match.
Phehlukwayo was a debatable presence in the broader Proteas Test squad in England, and fairly predictably has seen no service in the series thus far; his first-class figures (535 runs at 19.10, 36 scalps at 35.97) don’t exactly scream “pick me” for five-day battle at this point.
But he also has youth firmly on his side, aged only 21, and those figures are quite likely to head agreeably northward over the next few years.
Perhaps the worthier challenger to Morris for a spot in the Test XI at this particular juncture is Dwaine Pretorius, currently representing SA ‘A’ in the limited-overs triangular on our shores but whose “FC” statistics are undoubtedly eye-catching.
The 28-year-old fellow-Highvelder sports 2,123 runs at 42.48, and 127 wickets at 21.81. (Morris in first-class terms has 2,096 runs at 30.82 and 166 poles at 25.30.)
Those batting figures by Pretorius indicate that he has the potential for comfort and solid, meaningful vigils as a Test No 7 or 8, whilst the economy rate that accompanies his first-class bowling (2.74) points spiritedly to his strength in “control” terms – the very area Morris is under harsh scrutiny for, heading into Friday.
Whilst the Proteas will not wish to see the incumbent – assuming he plays the Test – too noticeably turn down the temperature on his natural attacking zeal as a multipronged cricketing package, Old Trafford also gives Morris a necessary opportunity to show that he can, indeed, help his fellow-bowlers in exercising due patience when required.
Building pressure, rather than trying too constantly to “bomb” people out, remains a key pillar at times to Test cricket success.
Can he just tweak his ways a touch? Over to you, Mr Morris …
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