Cape Town – Some would brand it madness, but there may also be some method if South Africa’s brains trust decide to keep the team for the second Test against Australia in Port Elizabeth from Friday unchanged.
Considering the reasonably clear-cut, 118-run defeat in Durban – duly wrapped up by the Aussies quickly on Monday – there will be an inevitable clamour in some circles for alteration to the SA XI in a match that is already pivotal in terms of the Proteas’ desperate quest for a first-time home series triumph over these foes since 1969/70.
Lose at St George’s Park, and the dream is instantly ruined, as a 2-2 share would then become the best possible outcome for Faf du Plessis and company.
South Africa were outplayed in virtually all departments in the first Test – save perhaps for the spin one, where Keshav Maharaj had admirable match figures of 9/225 to Nathan Lyon’s 3/136 – and generally played second fiddle for not unimportant aggression, too.
As Australian-born but agreeably impartial SuperSport commentator Mike Haysman noted during the Baggy Greens’ charge toward victory: “They are so intense … hunting as a pack.”
So with better own cohesion and urgency, might the very same Proteas combo be capable of doing the bounce-back business in the Friendly City?
It should not be discounted, especially bearing in mind that SA won the last bilateral encounter there (by 231 runs, in the 2013/14 series) and also have a better recent Test record in PE than their increasingly abject Durban one – four triumphs and one draw in the last five Tests.
In favour of keeping the team unchanged is the “shot at redemption” principle, and the related phenomenon of not wishing to be seen to be too panicky or knee-jerk in response after one early setback in a series.
Remember also that the Proteas did enter the first Test a little unpolished as several of their ranks – Du Plessis himself, AB de Villiers and Quinton de Kock – had scurried into their slots after injuries and been pretty short of middle time.
All three ought to be sharper physically for the second encounter.
One thing highly unlikely to be changed is the shape of the team, even if the odd personnel tweak is made.
Considering the fragility of their batting, there is no way at present that coach Ottis Gibson and his aides can contemplate thinning that department from its current specialist stock of seven customers, including wicketkeeper De Kock.
So “four bowlers” will almost certainly have to be the brew on that front again, with some part-time back-up if necessary from Dean Elgar or Aiden Markram.
A second out-and-out spinner for St George’s, which is likely to be slow, abrasive and receptive to the trade?
Highly unlikely: for one thing, there is no extra specialist to Maharaj in the 15-strong squad as presently constituted, and a second spinner would also mean taking the seam arsenal down to a dangerous, mere two.
But if one of the pace trio are to be dropped, the prime (only?) candidate would be veteran, soon-retiring Morne Morkel, who took a long time to get into the wickets column at Kingsmead (0/75 in the first innings), although he did finally grab three toward the tail-end of the Aussie second knock.
There is a case for the Proteas replacing him with the strapping young Lungi Ngidi, who could come especially into his own if the PE pitch goes “up and down” as the game wears on, although the beanpole Morkel is no slouch in exploiting that either.
What of the batting?
For starters, emotional talk – predominantly on social media, of course – of Hashim Amla being ditched is ludicrously premature at this stage.
As age starts to take its natural toll, he is increasingly not the consistent dominator of old — and does have an issue in recent times with seeing off Josh Hazlewood — but people seem to have such short memories: only one Test earlier, he notched defiant scores of 61 and 52 on a Wanderers green-top against India.
Amla remains a key heavyweight in the South African top order, always with the potential for a truly major score – and there aren’t too many of those right now, despite the massively heart-warming advances of Markram in Durban.
If any single batsman is in danger, it is probably Theunis de Bruyn, despite his gutsy resistance for a while in the SA second innings at Kingsmead: in the cold light of day, he still managed only six and 36, and has a Test average of 14 after four admittedly stop-start appearances.
He remains a decent bet for the Proteas’ future, but if Temba Bavuma finally ticks the fitness box sufficiently for consideration at St George’s Park, he would warrant coming very firmly into the picture with his superior street wisdom.
Bavuma is a tenacious “resister” at the crease, a quality the Proteas require in bigger loads at present, and in his last major series, in England, kept the home attack at bay rather better than most colleagues in challenging conditions.
Things are already challenging against the Aussies …
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