South Africa have continued their selection trend of being conservative and sticking with what they know when it comes to selection. The series against Australia will offer the opportunity to Test out a few new combinations, but very few of those offer enticing long-term prospects. By ANTOINETTE MULLER.
The general trend involving players making their Test debut for South Africa over the last couple of years has been: just go and have fun. With so many stalwarts in the team, youngsters coming through the ranks have been able to do just that. Even when crunched in under pressure. Players entering the fray have knuckled down and performed almost every single time. Kyle Abbott and Marchant de Lange are two bowlers who have performed out of their skin on debut when briefly drafted into the side as a replacement for an injured player. Transitions, even if brief, have been generally seamless.
There will be another transitional period for South Africa when they play Australia in three Test matches starting next month, and that is the life after Jacques Kallis transition. Ryan McLaren and Wayne Parnell in the Test squad have both been included in the side to face Australia, but the overall make-up of the side is not yet certain.
McLaren has proven his worth in the limited overs format and is a real dogsbody on the pitch. Parnell, meanwhile, adds a left-arm option to the attack and is no mug with the bat, having opened and scored a hundred for his franchise before. McLaren is reliable and consistent while Parnell is more feisty fast bowler, with his left-arm seam being to his advantage. That offers the ability to scuff up the pitch and add a little bit of spice for bowlers like JP Duminy.
The final XI is yet to be decided, and having spent the best part of the last two decades with the luxury of a fourth seamer, South Africa was always going to be conservative in its replacement. The addition of a fourth seamer is crucial on South African decks, but it’s the rest of the selection which seems rather ordinary and uninspiring.
It’s a country where spin hasn’t really flourished and the quicks have always had to do the business with spinners usually playing a far more passive role. If there ever were a time to break the shackles of this conservative selection trend, it is now.
While it is rare to see teams without a first-choice spinner in the squad these days, it is questionable why somebody like Simon Harmer, the Warriors spinner who will train with the side in the lead up to the first Test, has not been considered for selection.
While Robin Peterson has retained his place and Imran Tahir has been dropped for the foreseeable future, even Andrew Hudson, South Africa’s convener of selectors, himself admitted that Peterson was only picked on a “few good performances”.
Australia is notoriously good at playing spin and somebody of Peterson’s calibre should be no trouble at all. Spin still has a role to play on South African surfaces, especially in the late summer, but Peterson averaged over 40.00 with the ball last year and while he certainly has been much improved in some cases, his selection remains on the safe and comfortable side altogether. In the three Ashes Tests where Graeme Swann features, Australia scored 560 runs off him. The only two bowlers who conceded more were Stuart Broad (578) and James Anderson (615) and they both played in all five-Tests. Spin is the last thing that is going to trouble Australia. Average spin will be nothing but free runs, exactly the kind of thing the Aussie batting line-up with a soft underbelly will see as an invitation to exploit.
If blooding a young spinner were too much of a leap for the selectors, then the other option will be to drop the spinner altogether. That would offer South Africa the chance to blood a young specialist batsman lower down the order. That could have been the blustery Quinton de Kock or even the steely left-handed Stiaan van Zyl while Duminy could play a holding role, if needs be, especially if there is a left-armer to rough up the pitch.
That still leaves Kallis’ position vacant, and this could easily be filled by a specialist fourth seamer – Kyle Abbott, Beuran Hendricks or Ryan McLaren. The squad selected does not feature any of those names, though, and instead, if an extra batsman is played, it will be Dean Elgar. If an all-out pace attack is opted for, it will be Rory Kleinveldt and Wayne Parnell who make up the numbers.
There is much talent to be excited about in South African cricket at the moment, but it is unlikely that any of those will be chanced upon. Hudson has insisted that South Africa will be sticking with the “if it ain’t broke” approach.
Coach Russell Domingo hinted that there would not be a certain strategy, but insisted that the role of frontline spinner is too big of a task for Duminy which means that South Africa is unlikely to err into all-pace territory any time soon.
“It’s not going to be a set strategy like we had in the past. Something got to give. Either we will have four seamers, no spinner or only six batters. But I like going into matches with a spin bowler. If we are expecting JP to pick up five wickets, that’s going to be a big ask for him. He is still a long way away from being a frontline spinner in Test cricket,” said Domingo.
The coach also urged patience with players like De Kock being brought into the side and hinted that he might be seen in the Test side later in the year when South Africa plays Zimbabwe.
“Quinny is a massively talented player, but a series against Australia is such a tough environment to come into for your first Test series. We play lower profile Test series later in the year and maybe then we can look to blood someone like Quinton. He has got a lot of development to do as a person and a cricketer and I don’t want to do him a disservice by rushing him in,” said Domingo.
Selection might be conservative, but at least South Africa is taking a solid approach to preparation. There are a few niggles in the side with AB de Villiers, Dale Steyn, Faf du Plessis, Graeme Smith and even Vernon Philander having aches and pains, but all are expected to be fit. Everyone will feature in a ‘Rest of South Africa XI’ warm-up before the first Test starts in Centurion on 12 February. That ‘Rest Of’ will feature players from the franchises who do not make the playoffs of the domestic T20 competition. DM
Photo: South Africa’s captain Graeme Smith (C) celebrates the wicket of Australia’s Matthew Wade with team mates at the WACA during the fourth day’s play of the third test cricket match in Perth December 3, 2012. REUTERS/Stringer
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