India: Proteas’ team poser

Russel Domingo (Gallo Images)
Russel Domingo (Gallo Images)
Cape Town – The time for rotation and experimentation is over ... South Africa’s brains trust will have to show their “first team” hand when they tackle the first of three one-day internationals against world champions India at the Wanderers on Thursday.

Though again not without obvious faults in certain areas, the fickle Proteas dodged the embarrassment of a first-ever home clean sweep of defeats in a bilateral series when they saw off Pakistan by four wickets in the dead rubber third encounter at Centurion on Saturday.

Just as the Pakistanis did, South Africa entered the game minus the services of several senior troopers: fitness and other considerations permitting, all of Graeme Smith, Jacques Kallis, Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel will be back in contention for the Bullring.

It gives the Proteas a predicament that is largely pleasant in bowling terms, where almost all of their large stock of seamers are on song – some unlucky customers will have to miss out on Thursday -- though perhaps less so when it comes to getting the batting balance right.

That area remains characterised by a fragility that was not altogether absent once more at SuperSport Park: there were times when it looked as though AB de Villiers’s team were going to truly romp home, but then they would irritatingly lose wickets to only confirm the long-time lack of a killer touch and consistency.

A glowing exception to that hallmark was the captain himself, who made up for his excessive impulsiveness in the gut-wrenching one-run loss in the decisive Port Elizabeth match by playing a suitably measured, rock-solid unbeaten knock of 48 to take his country over the line properly this time.

Interestingly De Villiers batted at No 5 (allowing JP Duminy to go in one place higher) which is the slot he may have to occupy again should coach Russell Domingo and company decide that experience will be a big batting virtue against the Indians and opt to restore both of Smith and Kallis in their top order.

Should that happen, the suspicion will remain that De Villiers is far better suited to getting in no lower than at No 4 in this format, although a decent platform up front could also aid his quest to be a match-winner.

There are still some question marks in the middle order, where David Miller, with ample time on Saturday to first knuckle down and then fulfil his supposed “finisher” task, failed to tick the latter box with a loose swish after getting to 24 in a near half-hour stay.

His job is difficult, and most critics would still love him to really come through at this level, but the harsh fact remains that this forceful hitter is playing more on what he might do these days than what he is actually doing in a national shirt.

If a decision is made to omit Miller on Thursday – though one last chance, perhaps? -- Duminy would probably be entrusted with the No 6 position; he has shown before that he can bat effectively right to the death in one-day internationals even if his current form is unremarkable.
Given the collective success of South Africa’s pace bowlers on Saturday on a Highveld pitch with good bounce and carry initially, the hosts may hope for not dissimilar conditions in Johannesburg and try to bomb India’s renowned stroke-players – something that could also put down a useful marker for the tour more broadly.

Under such circumstances, the Proteas will have to think long and hard about whether they feel they can afford to play leg-spinner Imran Tahir, who has been a bit up and down in the Pakistan series and on Saturday was easily the most expensive SA bowler – one or two “buffet” balls were thumped over the ropes contemptuously.

In fairness, he does remain a healthy partnership-breaking option if the faster men are not making quite the inroads expected of them.

But if Tahir is considered too much of a risk, a bigger seam arsenal would only increase the likelihood that South Africa can accommodate Vernon Philander at the Wanderers.

The Cape Cobras favourite thoroughly deserves a go, as he has been near-faultless in three ODIs on contrasting tracks this month against Pakistan – one in Sharjah (8-2-23-2), and then at Newlands (10-0-37-1) and now a player-of-the-match effort in achieving figures of 10-3-26-3 at Centurion.

This was his second-best analysis in his mere 11 ODIs since his introduction in 2007, beaten only by the four for 12 he registered on debut against Ireland in Belfast, and his second spell was wonderfully miserly.

Can he justifiably be left out?

That is one of many tough questions for the Proteas’ chief strategists to mull over in the next few days.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing
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