Proteas find mojo... and team shape

Proteas celebrate (AP)
Proteas celebrate (AP)

Cape Town - Perhaps as pivotal as their stunning performance, leading to a 340-run victory at Trent Bridge, was the resurgent South Africa striking the correct balance in their Test team selection.

At least for the foreseeable future now, I believe the once trusted “seven batsmen” policy - something favoured by Gary Kirsten and then extended pretty generously into the Russell Domingo coaching tenure - should and will be consigned to the storeroom.

The Proteas, with their Captain Fantastic back at the helm in the shape of Faf du Plessis, struck back with snarling vengeance in the second Test against England over the last few days to hand the host nation probably their nastiest reverse at the Nottingham venue since August 1989 when Australia won an Ashes clash by an innings and 180 runs.

It is 1-1 with a tantalising two to play, and another former national coach, Eric Simons, suggested in the SuperSport studio after Monday’s clinical finish that the tourists have “moved to firm favourites, especially with Kagiso Rabada coming back” to bag the series honours.

There is a bit of breathing space now, particularly with SA having completed the Trent Bridge business with a day to spare, until the third clash at The Oval from July 27.

Suddenly it is England will all the team make-up issues to chew on after their genuine humbling, coming so soon after they had held the whip hand at Lord’s.

Expect the Proteas, by contrast, to already be envisaging just one tweak to their winning XI for the return to London as Rabada, having served a debatable one-Test ban, in all likelihood replaces the still reasonably raw Duanne Olivier in the pace battery.

After a largely tentative showing with ball in hand, Olivier at least made amends by ripping out the last two England batsmen - Mark Wood and James Anderson - in the space of two deliveries on Monday, but “KG” is nevertheless a must for restoration.

Otherwise, the Proteas brains trust would need their heads read, frankly, if further changes were contemplated.

The sum of the parts was so compelling at Nottingham that Rabada’s reinfusion does seem the lone, logical alteration even if men like Heino Kuhn and Temba Bavuma are having to look over their shoulders just a bit as major runs currently elude them.

Critically, though, the rebalancing of the combination to ensure an orthodox fifth bowling presence - rather than one or two trundling part-timers rather painfully fulfilling that job - was a key ingredient of the thumping win.

The Proteas took the commendably positive step at Trent Bridge of effectively sacrificing one of their hitherto fairly trademark seven batting specialists to allow for two bowling all-rounders being engaged at berths seven and eight.

For the first-named slot, it meant elevation by one rung for Vernon Philander, who duly went on to produce a man-of-the-match showing, pleasingly punctuated by his all-round mastery, whilst Chris Morris was summoned to No 8 for only his third Test match and had plenty of heart-warming moments in a dual capacity too.

What needs to be remembered is that, when former coach Kirsten so strongly advocated “seven batsmen” - rightly believing it gave his charges a key point of difference over most other teams at the time - the Proteas still had at their service a certain Jacques Henry Kallis.

One of the last of the true batting all-rounders in cricket, a notably disappearing breed, Kallis comfortably performed fifth-bowler chore ... certainly he was capable of sending down 10 to 15 overs a day, and sometimes more in his heyday, without any real sacrifice of pressure and with the ability to dismiss the most blue-chip of batsmen on a good day.

Before his side-lining for the latest Test - many would say not before time - JP Duminy effectively was the attempted “Kallis” solution after the great all-rounder’s retirement, doubling as batsman and occasional off-spinner to supplement a merely four-staffed frontline attack.

But his second trade also became so sporadic in the five-day arena that it was barely an asset at all, a situation only compounded by his leanness in the runs column.

I admit to suffering long-time palpitations, as it were, over the concept of lean, four-man bowling attacks, primarily on the grounds that Test series are more and more tightly concertinaed these days - meaning back-to-back ones are a swelling hallmark, with all the fatigue-related stress that brings to bowlers - and that doing the required 20-wickets task only becomes insufferably harder if one of the quartet breaks down.

That happened for a period, when South Africa went that team-composition route, at Lord’s, as Philander took a sharp blow to his bowling hand and could only offer five overs to the England second innings.

For the follow-up Test, the extra sharpness allowed to all the seamers by the luxury of shorter spells and greater rotation of duties ultimately spelled handsome reward.

As Philander pointed out in the afterglow of Trent Bridge: “I was able to run in with more intensity.”

Besides, he looked every bit an accomplished, assured No 7 batsman en route to his successive knocks of 54 (81 balls) and 42 off 75 in the landmark victory which finally sparks South Africa’s lengthy general tour at an ideal juncture.

The Proteas have concocted the correct Test brew; they mustn’t be too quick to drain the barrel.

*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.
42% - 10272 votes
11% - 2789 votes
19% - 4641 votes
2% - 609 votes
1% - 232 votes
2% - 562 votes
5% - 1228 votes
8% - 2051 votes
3% - 825 votes
Water sports
1% - 218 votes
American sports
1% - 302 votes
3% - 791 votes