Proteas: Is Smuts a new threat to Markram?

Jon-Jon Smuts (Gallo Images)
Jon-Jon Smuts (Gallo Images)

Cape Town - Like gold: a batsman who offers you at least a feasible “half-dose” of overs in white-ball cricket.

It is an attribute all international teams - and especially those not massively stocked with genuine all-rounders - relish having.

South Africa are no different, a situation amplified in an era where they are still gingerly coming to terms with the retirement of JP Duminy.

A notable veteran of 199 one-day international and 81 Twenty20 international appearances in the Proteas’ greens over the course of some 15 years between 2004 and 2019, the diminutive middle-order batsman often doubled up as a comforting sixth bowling option for his captain with his serviceable (sometimes more than that, too) off-spin.

It is not every day that a five-strong frontline attack manages to complete, strictly as a unit, the full quota of either 50 or 20 overs between them; at least one may be subjected to really undignified treatment in the run-concession column, making it imperative that a sixth bowler, perhaps offering a merciful change of pace in the process, enter the picture.

That is where Duminy came in so handy down the years, the sort of figure you could “sneak in” for a few overs even if not necessarily a full stint.

He bagged 90 career wickets for the Proteas across the two limited-overs formats - proof enough of his competence at his second trade in the right circumstances.

There was at least some cause for minor surprise when the national selectors called up Warriors stalwart Jon-Jon Smuts for the current, three-match ODI series against England: the 31-year-old has played eight T20 matches for South Africa but his name not been especially firmly linked with the 50-overs cause until his nod came.

After all, the right-handed batsman and left-arm spinner is primarily a top-of-the-order factor at the crease by reputation, and at Newlands in the first ODI earlier this week - where he made his debut in the unexpectedly memorable trouncing of the World Cup champions - he was asked to bat at slightly novel, for him, No 5.

Thanks overwhelmingly to the majesty of new captain Quinton de Kock and Temba Bavuma in a major earlier partnership of 173, Smuts merely had to help nudge the finishing touches to the Proteas’ victory under minimal pressure, and duly ended seven not out.

So whether he offers any lasting solutions in the middle of the ODI batting department remains to be seen; perhaps there will be a better opportunity to gauge his credentials in game two at Kingsmead - fairly ominous weather permitting - on Friday (13:00 start).

But in at least one development that thoroughly justified his involvement, and simultaneously gave a good idea of why the wise men invested some faith in him, Smuts bowled a full stint of 10 overs at Newlands for a sprightly return of one for 43, his effectiveness in both the wickets and economy columns only bettered by more specialist spin colleague Tabraiz Shamsi (3 for 38).

While the fairly late-season slowness of the surface undoubtedly made Smuts’ supposedly part-time trade that key bit easier, it was still a welcome display of metronomic control - something many a franchise player or observer would be likely to attest to.

On the strong assumption that he keeps his place in Durban, Smuts is likely to be targeted more earnestly by the England stroke-players, especially now that they have had a proper look at him, to see if they can unsettle him to a far greater extent than was the case in Cape Town.

It is impossible not to harbour at least some sense of suspicion that the Grahamstown-born customer made the ODI squad because of the ongoing absence through injury of Aiden Markram, around whom high hopes remain despite his underwhelming statistics so far for the SA “green machine”.

Markram has played 26 ODIs to this point, been tried out in every berth within the top four and sports a batting average that hardly warrants trumpeting from rooftops: a touch under 28.

But apart from the lingering insistence by many pundits - not without reason? - that his uniquely clean brand of striking will eventually come more routinely good statistically for the Proteas, the former SA U19 skipper, like Smuts, offers part-time bowling possibilities (as an off-spinner).

While scantily used so far in ODIs - six opportunities to turn his arm over - Markram’s bowling has produced three wickets and an economy rate of 6.60, suggesting that he should keep working with some earnest at his less “regular” department.

I’d suggest it is fair to venture that while Markram may still be more highly valued for X-factor at the crease, Smuts’s superior bowling means he has the scope to be a reasonably lingering threat to the former’s presence in the “batsman who bowls a bit” category when fully fit again ...

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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