Cape Town – When it ruled the world, the South African Test cricket team was often a healthily closed shop.
Now that it rather emphatically doesn’t, I suggest instead declaring open season ... at least for the next few days.
The opportunity, if that is the right word to use, of a dead-rubber closing fixture against England is not one to pass up, by my book; experimentation should be a pretty strong theme at SuperSport Park from Friday.
A side looking increasingly stale and listless, and with several incumbents probably still feeling the effects of the lengthy prior ordeal in India, could do with some serious pepping-up in personnel, simultaneously offering the selectors extra pointers for the tricky rebuilding job required in the months or couple of years ahead.
Batting-wise, I wouldn’t stop at just installing debutant Stephen Cook as Dean Elgar’s opening partner in place of the makeshift, low-producing Stiaan van Zyl; the chance should also be taken amongst the top six to gauge whether that booming striker Rilee Rossouw can transfer the skills he has already demonstrated at limited-overs international level to the Test landscape.
He has waited in line for quite some time, and if the Proteas are to put a necessarily rapid stop to their recent habit of collectively crumpling at the crease like a paper plate in a roaring fire, it is well worth freshening the mix with more than one person not yet caught in any of those disconcerting spirals.
I would love to see southpaw Rossouw – though there is still a worrying rumour he may be tried as yet another experimental opener, rather than capping the specialist Cook – slotted in at No 5 between right-handers AB de Villiers and Temba Bavuma, and given a nothing-to-lose licence to thrill if he possibly can.
Faf du Plessis, by contrast, is tending toward a cramped, rather stroke-less game plan at present, which is somehow indicative of the broader loss of once copious bravado in the batting unit.
He boasts just one half-century (86 on the Newlands “paradise” deck over New Year) from his last 14 Test innings and probably needs a mental break as much as anything; expect the 31-year-old to push himself back into contention sooner rather than later if given a merciful cold shoulder at Centurion.
We already know that Quinton de Kock will be one guaranteed change at No 7, as he is reportedly fit again after his bizarre dog-walking accident ahead of the Wanderers Test where South Africa surrendered the series and Dane Vilas had to rush from Port Elizabeth to deputise behind the stumps and do that part of the chore very soundly.
But perhaps some people forget that, still-youthful warts and all, De Kock has very special qualities of his own both at the crease and with the gloves, and could be another to benefit from the reduced pressures of this being a Test match with less at stake than usual.
He may still have one or two technical and temperamental gremlins as a batsman, but he also doesn’t hang about and could just prosper at Centurion, if he gets away, with its often fast outfield and downhill slope to the boundary ropes.
The Proteas’ plan to “bomb” England with four largely back-of-a-length quickies in the Bullring rather backfired in their faces – they were notably outwitted by a visiting attack prepared to let the ball do devilish, deviating things much closer up to the bat – and I cannot see how either of Hardus Viljoen or Chris Morris, regrettably, justify a further chance just up the highway after unacceptably expensive analyses in Johannesburg.
I would be inclined to reduce the pace quartet to a trio again, retaining both the in-form Kagiso Rabada and also Morne Morkel (at a venue he is so familiar with) but bringing back the accurate, persevering tendencies of Kyle Abbott as third element.
He has happy memories of SuperSport Park after his 9/68 Test debut there against Pakistan two years ago, and should be a key element in making England “work” appreciably harder for their runs than they had to in the Big Smoke.
Trimming the SA seam division to three would also facilitate the deserved restoration of Dane Piedt to continue his off-spinning development at the highest level, after he was a victim of the horses-for-courses policy for the third Test.
Centurion has not been an especially prolific hunting ground statistically for slow bowlers in recent Test matches, but the surface there is at least a little receptive to their trade and a return to better variety in the attack is one way the Proteas can try to banish their Jo’burg blues in a hurry.
Suggested XI for Centurion (five changes): Stephen Cook, Dean Elgar, Hashim Amla, AB de Villiers (capt), Rilee Rossouw, Temba Bavuma, Quinton de Kock, Kagiso Rabada, Kyle Abbott, Dane Piedt, Morne Morkel.
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing