Proteas: Still stress over opening spot

Linda Zondi (Gallo)
Linda Zondi (Gallo)

Cape Town – Uncertainty over the presence of their captain, Faf du Plessis, as well as stubborn insecurity over one of the opening slots has the Proteas in a state of unusual batting anxiety over their prospects in the glamour first Test against England at Lord’s in little more than a fortnight.

Selection boss Linda Zondi told Sport24 that they hoped to be able to announce the squad for the four-Test Basil D’Oliveira Trophy series “later this week if all goes well”.

The “if all goes well” proviso is understandable, particularly as the leadership, experience and durability at the crease of Du Plessis will be vital elements of the quest to get the series off to a winning start at the hallowed London venue … and he may not even be at his post for important game one.

His wife Imari is expecting their first child at almost precisely the same time as the Lord’s Test is on the go, and the player naturally wishes to be present for that event.

Some South African enthusiasts will be wincing anyway over the self-determined absence for this series of middle-order star AB de Villiers; his old schoolmate Du Plessis potentially also being out of the mix at Lord’s would only double that fear over the gaping voids.

Certainly Du Plessis being thousands of kilometres away, if that is what happens, would heap pressure on the Proteas’ only remaining other really senior figure at the crease, Hashim Amla, to produce the goods in a big way at Lord’s.

Wicketkeeper/batsman Quinton de Kock is another with the potential to be destructive against the host nation, but bear in mind that he will be playing his first Test series in England.

It is probably no coincidence that South Africa memorably won each of their last two Test series on English soil – 2008 and 2012 – while fortunate to boast seasoned, heavyweight batting line-ups each time.

But five of the batsmen who anchored the 2012 raid – Graeme Smith, Alviro Petersen, Jacques Kallis, De Villiers and Jacques Rudolph – have stepped aside now, whilst in 2008 many of those personalities had been joined in triumph by the likes of Neil McKenzie (now the batting coach) and Ashwell Prince.

Despite bouncing back to win four Test series in a row since England pipped the Proteas 2-1 on our soil in 2015/16, SA’s batting has been worrisomely inconsistent, powered more by resilient, often backs-to-the-wall partnerships or solitary innings of individual excellence than collective assuredness.

With or without Du Plessis for the crucial opening fixture, Zondi’s panel are going to announce a batting department marked by unproven hallmarks at the premier tier in UK conditions.

As well as De Kock, anticipated picks Temba Bavuma, Dean Elgar and Theunis de Bruyn will be among those yet to play a Test in England.

There is also the vexing matter of who will be chosen – if not one of the names already mentioned, albeit likelier for other berths in the order – as Elgar’s opening partner.

Just one reason for holding back on naming the party for a few more days may well have something to do with the last-ditch “trial” potential posed by the unofficial four-day Test between SA ‘A’ and England Lions beginning at Canterbury on Wednesday.

It will give the wise men one last chance, if they haven’t made up their minds already, to gauge which of the expected openers in that match, young captain Aiden Markram and the considerably more experienced first-class campaigner Heino Kuhn, looks a better bet to open with Elgar at Lord’s.

That is also assuming, of course, that Stephen Cook, part of the last Test squad in New Zealand although he was dropped for the final encounter, has blown his own chances through his too-skinny tally of County Championship runs more recently for Durham.

The 22-year-old Markram has patchy scores of his own, really, in the SA ‘A’ team’s most recent first-class matches on the UK tour, against Hampshire (win) and Sussex (loss) respectively: from most recent, 0, 33, 3 and 102 not out.

Kuhn, some 11 years Markram’s senior and a franchise-mate at the Titans, would have made the selectors sit up and take notice when he struck 200 not out in the Hampshire game; he did not play in the altogether less successful follow-up.

He also automatically gives a Test squad a decent second wicket-keeper option, which might endanger the position of Heinrich Klaasen, who was the back-up gloveman in New Zealand earlier in the year.

Although it might seem a last-minute, knee-jerk sort of thing to do, who could blame the selectors if they waited, given the slightly nervous climate, to see who comes off best in the game against the decent-looking, Keaton Jennings-led England Lions?

If Zondi’s panel stick to their formula of encouraging stability, perhaps there will be only one alteration from the party who did duty in NZ, with one of Markram or Kuhn replacing Cook, although a second specialist spinner is a possibility.

The SA squad might then be: Faf du Plessis (capt), Dean Elgar, Aiden Markram/Heino Kuhn, Hashim Amla, JP Duminy, Temba Bavuma, Quinton de Kock, Vernon Philander, Keshav Maharaj, Kagiso Rabada, Morne Morkel, Wayne Parnell, Duanne Olivier, Theunis de Bruyn, Heinrich Klaasen, Chris Morris.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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