Cape Town – If South Africa’s personnel are building a necessary head of steam for the fast-nearing home Test series against New Zealand, perhaps some of us didn’t get our letters of notice in the post.
If anything, the portents for the Proteas to retain their proud record of never have lost any of 14 series – home or away – to the Black Caps look only more ominous and fragile as the days drift by.
And there aren’t many of those to play with … it is nine, to be precise, until day one of the first Test at Kingsmead, a maiden August-staged five-day encounter in this country.
Uncertainty over quite how the pitch will play so early in the Durban spring is just one reason to suggest the Kiwis will be the beneficiaries of some “levelling” factors, at the very least.
But they are almost certainly going to enter the two-match hostilities better prepped, given that their senior squad have just come off a satisfying 2-0 outcome under the Zimbabwean sun, with plenty of their batsmen feasting rather royally and bowlers getting good, honest mileage in the legs.
As for the Proteas, Russell Domingo and company in the coaching staff are slowly welcoming back players to the 15-strong selected SA group from various corners of the planet and vastly differing codes of combat, with a ton of intense lead-up work to contemplate.
On a wing and a prayer, at least initially? It is difficult to view things any other way for the host nation, who will be in the highly unusual position anyway of starting the series presently ranked one spot lower, in sixth, than their foes on the ICC Test rankings.
Mustering fresh cohesion after a lengthy layoff in the format may take time, and there isn’t much of that to play with in a mere two-Test series; it is possible that certain highly-touted individuals may have to play out of their skins to ensure the Proteas get a busy season of the game’s most traditional fare off to a winning start.
Perhaps the biggest snag is that a SA ‘A’ team laden with senior national team figures has just suffered a nasty comeuppance in a two-match unofficial Test series against Australian counterparts in Brisbane and Townsville respectively.
Almost half of the troops likely to feature against the Black Caps took part in the exercise – either one or both clashes – but despite that apparent advantage, were thrashed on both occasions by a raw Aussie side that boasted a mere three Test caps, and all to Glenn Maxwell.
All of Dean Elgar (average 33.25), Stiaan van Zyl (27.75) and Stephen Cook (14.50) registered one innings of 50-plus, but that was about it as they generally failed to meet expectations.
Temba Bavuma had an even leaner time (51 runs across four knocks at 12.75), although he had the excuse of arriving Down Under particularly undercooked out of our deep mid-winter – he attended the annual CSA Awards banquet before being rushed onto a long-haul plane the next day and having desperately little time to acclimatise.
There were other woes afflicting players potentially earmarked for activity at Kingsmead shortly: the pace bowlers were no great shakes, although Vernon Philander had a disciplined, fair enough appearance statistically in a lone gallop in the first encounter.
The jury will also remain out around Dane Piedt, the off-spinner who is the only slow specialist included in the squad for the first Test against the New Zealanders; he bagged 6/262 over the two games in Australia but at a swollen average of almost 44 and slightly leaky economy rate of well over four runs to the over.
Prize top-order scalps seemed especially hard to come by for Piedt although, in fairness, he is still learning in varying conditions across the planet at his trade and only has five prior SA caps; he at least deserves the Black Caps series to try to make his spot that bit more secure.
It isn’t just the returning SA ‘A’ players who provide some concerns, looking to Kingsmead.
In the absence of the 8,074-run Test acumen of injured captain AB de Villiers (Faf du Plessis is already pencilled to deputise for the moment), the other long-time rock of the batting order, Hashim Amla, will carry heavy responsibility – but the “Incredible Hash” is in the extremely rare position of not having played any first-class cricket since the final Test against England at Centurion in late January.
Similarly, the now 33-year-old strike legend Dale Steyn has not turned out in that format for even longer, going back to his injury breakdown in the Boxing Day Test, coincidentally also in the looming location of Durban.
He has had a diet almost entirely of Twenty20 cricket since his return from the crocked list, so just how ready his limbs and lungs – though he is an exemplary athlete by reputation -- will be to suddenly toil away for a possible 20-25 overs a day is anybody’s guess.
Good luck fitting all the scattered pieces snugly together rather quickly, Proteas …
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