Proteas: How much faith in part-timers?

Dean Elgar (Gallo)
Dean Elgar (Gallo)

Cape Town – Right, so what if South Africa decide on Friday to “chicken out” of the possibility of fielding five specialist bowlers in the first Test against India at Newlands?

Unless he has deviously been putting red herrings out there in media soundbites this week, head coach Ottis Gibson is partial to the idea of going bowler-heavy at the venue.

That option, of course, includes the possibility of an extra all-rounder – one of incumbent Andile Phehlukwayo or fit-again Chris Morris.

Nevertheless, the strong temptation may also remain, right up to the toss against the No 1-ranked outfit, to go the seven-batsmen route instead … thus also sidestepping the burning issue of exactly which stroke-player to omit.

If that scenario becomes the reality, suddenly the extent of their part-time bowling possibilities enters the radar.

That is because you always have to make allowance for the danger of one member of your frontline attack (hopefully no more than that) breaking down during the game.

Let’s say the Proteas put out the following, only four-strong bowling line-up: Vernon Philander, Kagiso Rabada, Morne Morkel and Keshav Maharaj.

There may be no need at all for a fifth element, but if the Indian batsmen show comfort and resilience in the conditions and/or one of the seamers pulls up with a niggle, that requirement could well suddenly arise.

So a not insignificant part of the pre-game discussion, you have to imagine, will have revolved around just how to “construct” that fifth-bowler chore in a time of need.

What it might well mean is a potentially three-pronged bits ‘n pieces package, made up of young opening batsman Aiden Markram (off-spin), more seasoned co-opener Dean Elgar (left-arm spin) and Temba Bavuma (medium-pace).

Yes, the multi-talented personality that is AB de Villiers possibly also warrants consideration, as just another proven element of his armoury is an ability to bowl accurate, albeit fairly pedestrian wicket-to-wicket seam.

Anyone remember that he once sent down as many as 21 overs in a single Test innings, during a ridiculously high-scoring draw on an Antiguan “road” in 2005, and earned two West Indian wickets at a low cost of 49 runs?

That said, he has bowled a grand total of just six Test overs since, and with body preservation issues now ever-present and necessary, deep into his 34th year, perhaps his bowling days are truly done.

On that note, skipper Faf du Plessis has also melted into complete inactivity as a once reasonably serious leg-spinner – he boasts a five-for in a non-international T20 match -- in recent years.

Besides, for a bowling clone of De Villiers, in many respects, look no further than the several-years-younger Bavuma, who also knows how, at the very least, to shuffle through a few overs while keeping a pretty good lid on the scoring rate.

Bavuma proved that in a second-innings stint of 7-1-29-1 (including the tail-end wicket of Josh Hazlewood) in the victorious Perth Test last season where Dale Steyn infamously broke down earlier in the contest; he also bowled five tight overs in a later Test at Lord’s.

Still, a likelier fifth-bowler component might come from Markram and/or Elgar with their tweaking fare, especially if sought deeper into the Newlands Test when increased turn may be evident.

Elgar has plenty of experience of spearing in his left-arm stuff, often economically, having claimed almost 130 wickets across the three major formats in domestic cricket, as well as 13 Test victims and a best in that landscape of 4/22 against the very Indians in Chandigarh in 2015.

His haul on that occasion, admittedly on a true dust bowl, included Messrs Pujara and Rahane in the Indian top five.

Markram? He’s an interesting case as bowler, only having bowled 12 balls thus far in the otherwise fairly meteoric start to his Test career as batsman, but I have heard a guru or two insist he is more than simply a “casual” factor with his offies, especially if he keeps working at his second trade.

The 23-year-old has already bowled, to varying degrees, in more than half of the 27 List A matches he’s participated in, which tells you something, and picked up 14 wickets at 22.28 including a best of 4/45.

So … do Markram/Elgar/Bavuma amount to a viable, knock-the-parts-into-one “fifth bowler” against the might of India? And just as importantly, on the pitch the combatants will be presented with?

Judgement lies with Gibson and his co-strategists at Newlands … 

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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