Cape Town – South Africa’s under-delivery at the crease on day one of the third Test against England at the Wanderers heaps the pressure on their reshaped attack to strike back pretty smartly to keep the hosts alive and kicking in the series.
There is enough in the Bullring strip to keep the bowlers constantly interested, as they say, but it is also a balanced enough one giving batsmen with the necessary ability, nous and durability the opportunity to knuckle down and then prosper.
Several of the Proteas’ top order did the first part smartly enough on Thursday ... but all of Stiaan van Zyl, Faf du Plessis and to some extent captain AB de Villiers could have been said to have needlessly sacrificed their wickets when seemingly set fair.
A clearly in-form Hashim Amla was exempt; he got a pearl of a delivery from Steven Finn to account for him rather out of the blue on a hitherto supremely commanding 40.
But throw in the later run-out mishap just as Temba Bavuma, the victim, and hastily-recalled Dane Vilas were beginning to flourish in sixth-wicket alliance and clearly the host nation have not done themselves sufficient justice after taking the brave but hardly irresponsible decision to take first strike under murky morning skies.
Late-afternoon tenacity from tail-enders Chris Morris and Kagiso Rabada saw the Proteas go to stumps in with a puncher’s chance of still reaching a par first-innings total, which may be somewhere in the region of 320 to 340.
Still, the onus is more likely to be on the South African all-pace quartet to restore proper balance; failing that and England will be getting ominously closer to a position where the Proteas’ goose is cooked not just in the Test but the series as well.
Despite the reputation the Wanderers has as a gung-ho place for aggressive quickies enjoying the luxury of being able to dig the ball in short and have batsmen bobbing and wincing, that policy alone may not be enough for the Proteas’ mostly rank inexperienced arsenal to contain England’s keener stroke-players for meaningful periods.
Television commentator and pace legend Michael Holding observed in the third session that the strip was quickening up a bit, but some subtlety and the ability to mix up lengths – fuller ones have seen the ball swing a bit – may well be required.
On that score, there have been some justifiable murmurs already among critics that the South African speed battery, featuring a debutant in big-framed hometown franchise hero Hardus Viljoen, runs the risk of being a little “samey” if they all get too obsessed with a comfort-zone, back-of-a-length policy.
In fairness to the Proteas’ brains trust, there has probably been enough evidence already to suggest that omitting their specialist spinner, the slightly unfortunate Dane Piedt, has been the right move given the structural constraints of the current team.
It is always an engrossing exercise, also, to see a new boy blooded, and perhaps Viljoen will announce himself with some venom after grabbing 20 Sunfoil Series scalps on his last two first-class appearances at the Wanderers.
But might they rue the non-selection of Kyle Abbott among the all-quick foursome?
Certainly the 28-year-old Dolphins workhorse is rapidly gaining a reputation as the “Mr Miss-out” of South African cricket; he seems to come and go in the Test set-up, with six rather scattered caps thus far, despite averaging a very eye-opening 23.38 with the cherry.
Let’s not forget that Abbott was also the controversial, sacrificial lamb for that fateful World Cup semi-final last year after a string of sprightly personal performances in earlier phases of the tournament.
He has already proved his mettle in at least one of two Highveld Test opportunities thus far, albeit that both have been at nearby Centurion: Abbott registered handsome match figures of 9/68 on debut against Pakistan almost two years ago.
The man from Empangeni is also better than most at putting a lid on things if scoring rates look like mushrooming undesirably; his first-class economy rate of 2.72 is notably better than those of Messrs Viljoen, Rabada and Morris.
SuperSport expert and South Africa’s all-time leading Test wicket-taker Shaun Pollock is just one famously fuller-length maestro who admitted to “surprise” at Abbott’s omission.
He said all of the Proteas bowlers picked for this clash were more “bang-in” by nature and that he would have liked to have seen all seamers in the series thus far more consistently try to keep the ball closer up to the bat in pitching terms for reward.
More recent national captain Graeme Smith chimed in: “Someone like Abbott offers something different. He gets it up; swings it.
“You’ve got to feel for him ... his record in Tests is very good. Bounce is clearly going to be South Africa’s method of attack.”
The wisdom of that philosophy is imminently set for a searching examination.
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