Von Berg: SA’s surprise ‘all-rounder’?

Shaun von Berg (Gallo Images)
Shaun von Berg (Gallo Images)

Cape Town – He’ll have been a bit of a left-field choice to many.

But Shaun von Berg, the 31-year-old leg-spinner who has plied his trade patiently at domestic level for many years, may well not be going to Sri Lanka simply to be a “sit-around” in South Africa’s 15-strong Test squad next month.

His five first-class centuries, and a batting average of pretty close to 30 (28.71) give him a tangible advantage on that front over most of the other bowlers named in the party on Monday.

Given the fact that several sport desperately limited credentials with the blade, potentially making for a glaringly long tail at times, Von Berg’s resilience in that department could just help to fast-track him straight into the XI when the Proteas tackle the two clashes, the first at Galle from July 12.

His claims are enhanced by the fact that, outside of stalwart Vernon Philander, the SA squad is notably shy of all-rounders.

Linda Zondi’s selection panel have overlooked for this Subcontinent challenge young Wiaan Mulder, who was in the extended squad toward the end of last season, while Chris Morris, another seamer who gives some oomph with the bat, is regrettably back in the injury wars with a back problem.

Understandably, a strong emphasis has been placed on spin for the trip, with first-choice left-armer Keshav Maharaj joined in the squad by recalled, Titans-based “chinaman” specialist Tabraiz Shamsi and now also his stocky franchise colleague Von Berg.

If Maharaj and Shamsi are fielded in the same side, the angle of attack doesn’t significantly change as the latter is also a left-armer, even if their styles are considerably different.

But that is more healthily the case if, for instance, the national side opts to try out Von Berg, who would be the first conventional, right-arm “leggie” the Proteas have placed their Test trust in for a fair while.

Veteran one-day regular Imran Tahir also falls under the category of leg-spinner, and has played 20 fairly sporadic Tests (average an unflattering 40.24), but it is sometimes queried whether he should be branded that, as his wrong ‘un comes into his armoury so often.

Once again in Sri Lanka, the Proteas will be faced with their long-time, post-Kallis dilemma over whether to put out seven batsmen and just four specialist bowlers, or go 6-5.

With the need to ensure the spin department is healthily-stocked (read: usually at least two in those climes) a 7-4 balance would almost certainly mean placing faith in only two quicker men.

That can be precarious indeed, given the possibility of one of them breaking down in a game.

Even at this relatively long-range point, my gut feel is that South Africa – yes, even as they are so harrowingly deprived of AB de Villiers now – will wish to place their trust in six frontline batsmen to produce the goods against the currently limited (sixth-ranked) ‘Lankans.

That’s where Von Berg comes fairly attractively into the equation -- in all likelihood as a slightly reassuring, bolstering presence at No 8, one slot below Philander in such a team structure.

At least on paper, his first-class batting history is more solid than all of the other touring squad bowlers, whether pace or spin, and could help facilitate his choice, say, ahead of Shamsi (FC batting average only 8.19).

Von Berg is traditionally not afraid to play some strokes, as evidenced by those five tons (top score 110 not out) and as many as 17 half-centuries.

Included in the latter tally is one from the match he played for SA ‘A’ against the touring Australians in 2017/18, where he batted at No 8 in Benoni and smashed a defiant 52 (second knock) off 43 deliveries against the likes of Messrs Starc, Hazlewood, Cummins and Lyon.

As with all exponents of his difficult leggie trade, Von Berg’s returns at Sunfoil Series level can be a little fickle – sometimes hot, occasionally anything but -- and Sri Lankan batsmen, with their familiarity against slow fare, would not be slow to put away any long hops or full tosses he might serve up.

But while it is seldom a sound principle to prefer one bowler to another simply because he boasts better figures at his second trade, there can be little doubt that Pretoria-born Von Berg’s ability at the crease works in his favour in a tight-choice situation.

If they do go “six batsmen”, be sure the Proteas will seek to do all they can to curtail the relatively obvious fluffiness of their tail …

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing


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