Ngidi: Fast track to PE Test debut?

Lungi Ngidi (Gallo)
Lungi Ngidi (Gallo)

Cape Town - The emotional reunion of an “old guard”, or might the theme instead revolve around the blooding of another raw, fresh-faced character?

That is a tantalising, currently undecided issue for South Africa’s pace plans in the once-off, historic four-day (and floodlit) Test against Zimbabwe at Port Elizabeth from Boxing Day.

At first thought, there may seem to be no room quite yet for Lungi Ngidi, the hugely exciting Titans-based speedster who is undoubtedly knocking compellingly at the door.

That is because, all going well on the injury-related front, the Proteas may be in a position to include all of their four established front-liners in the squad, expected to be revealed on Friday.

Kagiso Rabada, Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander - never yet all fielded together in a specific Test match, but so familiar to each other in squad and tour terms - represent the almost indisputable first-choice quartet.

If (and it is a reasonably large “if”) it is felt that all meet fitness requirements for a long-form fixture in time for the December 26 fixture, then room for other seamers in the extended party will be very limited.

Bear in mind that the Proteas selectors are likely to give a nod to at least one bowling all-rounder on top of Philander, with fit-again (and encouragingly in-form) Chris Morris and incumbent Andile Phehlukwayo the two primary options in that respect - scrapping for one ticket, you would think.

But how sure can convenor Linda Zondi and company feel that all four of the seasoned customers are able to potentially “bowl all day” at this stage?

Only the unfailingly stamina-laden young Rabada confidently ticks that box as things stand.

Steyn will reveal much more about his readiness, following a first-class absence of more than a year, when he turns out for an SA Invitation XI against the Zimbabweans in a three-dayer in Paarl from Wednesday.

But Philander and Morkel, neither exactly free of fitness-related woes in recent times, are also notably short of a multi-day gallop.

The former has had a fairly interrupted Ram Slam T20 Challenge tournament, and the lanky latter turned out in just one game for the eventual-champion Titans, before the knockout stages.

But there’s also been good, heartening reason for that: Morkel was pulled out of the semis and final of the Ram Slam so that he could instead turn out for Easterns in a Sunfoil 3-Day Cup fixture against Eastern Province at Benoni, ensuring a substantially better bag of overs.

It seemed a fruitful move as he claimed 5/20 and 2/23 in the very comfortable victory, getting through almost 20 overs in total, even if standards at that level of the game are currently dubious.

At roughly the same time, another current Test representative, Duanne Olivier, turned out after his own injury layoff for Free State against Boland in the same second-tier competition at Bloemfontein, bowling 22 overs and snaring three wickets.

So candidates are piling up promisingly for the Test squad, at a time of the season when the focus is about to turn very heavily to the demands of that format: after Zimbabwe come three home Tests against India, followed by four against presently rampant, Ashes-regaining Australia.

But if several of them still look a little undercooked, the Ngidi option becomes an attractive one.

The powerfully-built 21-year-old, who hits the pitch hard but has a fast-developing range of skills as well, has been one of the individual standouts in the T20 Challenge and was again in superb form in the disappointingly one-sided showpiece against the Dolphins on Saturday.

Ngidi picked up 2/15 in a full four-over stint, albeit eclipsed statistically by team-mate Morris’s 4/13.

He has still only played a miserly nine first-class matches, but the former Hilton College star’s youthfulness plays a big role in that and bear in mind that he registered match figures of 9/83 in his last Sunfoil Series match against the Lions in late October.

Plenty of South Africans are itching to see him audaciously unleashed in the Test arena as soon as possible.

Might the selectors also see things that way, and even as early as St George’s Park straight after Christmas?

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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