Proteas: Tough tweaks ahead for Test team

Theunis de Bruyn (AP)
Theunis de Bruyn (AP)

Cape Town - You know things are going quite rosily when “who to leave out” shapes up as a looming hazard.

That will be the case for the currently buzzing South African Test team in mid-February when - following the limited-overs obligations against battered, now clean-swept five-day foes Pakistan - they are next in action at that level against Sri Lanka.

As the second Subcontinent side to arrive in quick succession this summer, two Tests are scheduled against them: from February 13 at Kingsmead and February 21 at St George’s Park.

The venues alone are enough to remind that the Proteas, who duly polished off the Pakistanis in the third Test at the Wanderers by 107 runs on Monday for a pleasing 3-0 outcome, will need to make certain tactical adjustments to their line-up for the ‘Lankan challenge.

Both grounds usually cry out for employment of at least one specialist spinner: something South Africa bypassed in each of the last two Tests (Newlands and Bullring) as they fielded a formidable, unrelenting and four-strong pace battery each time.

Even if they do somehow find a way - through a batting sacrifice - to stick to a quartet of quickies plus the return of frontline spinner Keshav Maharaj, the Proteas may, by then, have emerging young Lungi Ngidi (15 wickets at 19.53 from four Test caps, don’t forget) fully fit again for consideration.

For the time being, of course, it would be dreadfully difficult to omit any of incumbents Kagiso Rabada, Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander and Duanne Olivier.

Collectively, they were just too hot to handle by the Pakistanis, even if the series did sometimes throw up pitch conditions that were a little more “up and down” than some five-day purists would wish.

It is an amazing thought that Olivier would probably not have seen any action at all in the just-completed series had Ngidi been available … instead he was a revelation with his well-back-of-a-length brutality, snapping up 24 wickets at an average of 14.70.

That was the best tally by a South African in a three-Test series since Charlie Llewellyn’s 25 against Australia some 116 years ago, and a sure-fire passage to his player-of-the-series mantle.

He has simply got to feature at the outset against the sixth-ranked Sri Lankans, quite likely to be no less assured against his brand of aggression than the Pakistanis, only one rung lower on the ICC ladder, were.

With so much enviable firepower on the bowling front for head coach Ottis Gibson and his lieutenants to chew on, how strongly to staff the batting will be an associated conundrum in the next Test series.

It remains the one department that remains broadly less than convincing in the Proteas’ quest – they are now second in the rankings, ahead of England – to advance to No 1 in the world.

So it would be overly blasé of them to believe they could simply cull a batsman next month and bring in-form Quinton de Kock up the order to six from his present seven: statistics show that he is notably happiest in the latter “Gilchrist” berth.

De Kock was one of only two century-makers for the Proteas in the Pakistan series – though the tourists got none, Asad Shafiq’s 88 their highest individual score – with the other being captain Faf du Plessis, suspended for the Wanderers Test.

Du Plessis must naturally be fitted in again for the Durban Test, which means someone from the current batting line-up will make way, even if South Africa don’t weaken their stocks by one stroke-player in a shift of balance to their XI.

Who would that be? Maybe now Theunis de Bruyn is the favourite to go, as Johannesburg debutant Zubayr Hamza showed promise with his first-innings 41.

De Bruyn’s series against Pakistan does not look good on paper: 112 runs at 18.66 with a best of 49.

Career-wise, he is now averaging a shade over 20 after nine Test appearances, which is well less than a “nailed down” situation.

Interestingly, though, SA-born former England superstar Kevin Pietersen, a SuperSport pundit during the just-completed series, believes the tall right-hander warrants more time and patience from the wise men.

“He may have played a loose shot or two, but I saw enough of De Bruyn to say ‘hey, hey, hey … just hang on with this kid’,” Pietersen was quoted as saying.

While still some way from the finished article, the South African Test team cannot be in bad health with such thorny composition issues to deal with in the next few weeks.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For only R75 per month, you have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today.
Subscribe to News24
Voting Booth
What is your favourite sport to watch on TV?
Please select an option Oops! Something went wrong, please try again later.
40% - 15123 votes
12% - 4676 votes
19% - 7087 votes
3% - 995 votes
1% - 374 votes
2% - 911 votes
5% - 1920 votes
9% - 3277 votes
4% - 1363 votes
Water sports
1% - 346 votes
American sports
1% - 470 votes
3% - 1266 votes