Cape Town – Back in the fearsome heyday of West Indies cricket, they used to talk reverently of the “four horsemen of the apocalypse” in their pace department.
It was a reference to the period in the early 1980s when not only did they field a quartet of highest-class speedsters, but all four were formidably tall, assault-and-battery specialists on hapless batsmen: Michael Holding, Joel Garner, Colin Croft and Andy Roberts.
There is something especially thrilling in Test cricket, to this day, when a team feels confident enough, and conditions justify it, to put out a four-pronged pace/seam alliance.
St George’s Park may seem anything but the likeliest of venues – and they will almost certainly have a need also for emerging specialist spinner Keshav Maharaj – but it is not out of the question that the Proteas will be strongly seduced by the thought of all of Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander, Morne Morkel and Kagiso Rabada steaming in against Zimbabwe in the once-off, floodlit four-day Test “experiment” from Boxing Day.
That appealing scenario, of course, has never yet come to fruition.
The young, strong and durable Rabada has been a near ever-present in pure fitness terms since he made his debut against India at Mohali in November 2015 (21 further caps have followed) but the more advanced-age other three have suffered layoffs of varying lengths in the interim.
So there has not yet been the opportunity to see them operate as a formidable -- undoubtedly on paper – unit.
But now ducks are gradually getting into a promising row for the prospect, especially with the news earlier this week that beanpole Morkel is ready to return to service for the Titans in the Ram Slam T20 Challenge.
That should put him in line, assuming his comeback from a side strain goes according to plan, for a place in the Test squad for the Zimbabwe date.
Steyn is also earmarking that clash for his own keenly-awaited first Test appearance since November last year, so if Philander and Rabada are in suitable fettle all four should be in the extended squad for Port Elizabeth.
What price them all actually playing, too?
It would depend very much, just for starters, on the balance to the XI that new coach Ottis Gibson and company favour for the southern African “derby”.
Suggestions this week that regular captain Faf du Plessis (back issues) remains doubtful for Boxing Day may tempt the Proteas brains trust to simply risk going a batsman light against the minnows – not the greatest gamble they would ever have taken, let’s face it – in favour of a five-strong bowling attack (four quicks, plus still a big role for left-arm spinner Maharaj).
Gibson, a former Test paceman, may well still be partial to finding room for a seam-bowling all-rounder like Andile Phehlukwayo or Chris Morris, but if they opt to bypass that type of player, the way would be clear for the presence of all four proven, specialist fast men.
Remember that despite St George’s Park’s reputation as a slow, back-breaking surface for pace bowlers, this Test is a maiden day/nighter in the country and the coastal strip could behave very differently in the late afternoon and then night sessions.
Veteran PE fans who recall the days of Rod McCurdy and Brett Schultz steaming in under lights there during the old Benson & Hedges night series for Eastern Province will testify to the fact that there was often plenty of “juice” to assist them.
St George’s Park is also renowned for its occasional up-and-down hallmark as matches develop, which would interest someone like Morkel with his ability to extract copious bounce.
Frankly, the Proteas should not have to fret too much about their ability to make a suitable tally of runs over either innings against their limited neighbours, even if their tail would look a tad lengthy beyond that under-rated batsman Philander at possible No 7.
Given the novel four-day flavour, the onus will probably be greater on the bowling front to get the 20 wickets job done in the unusually tighter time frame, and SA having five options (always comforting in the event of someone breaking down) does seem to make good sense.
Should the Proteas indeed be keen, then, to unleash their own-styled version of the “apocalypse” on the pace front (and there is no Du Plessis on the batting front), this is what their XI against Zimbabwe might well look like:
Dean Elgar (capt), Aiden Markram, Hashim Amla, AB de Villiers, Temba Bavuma, Quinton de Kock, Vernon Philander, Dale Steyn, Kagiso Rabada, Keshav Maharaj, Morne Morkel.
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