The one-off Test against Zimbabwe which starts on Saturday presents South Africa with the perfect opportunity to put a few of their rookies on trial. By ANTOINETTE MULLER.
In what seems like an astronomical waste of everyone’s time and energy, South Africa will face Zimbabwe in a one-off Test beginning on Saturday in Harare. That is not to be disrespectful to Zimbabwe; it’s more a case of the lopsided scheduling that continues to plague Test cricket. While South Africa are fresh off a 0-1 series win over Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe has not played a Test since last year. It’s a combination of maladministration and the powers-that-be simply not giving a toss about “the little guys”: the trip to the neighbouring country seems like something done only out of courtesy. There is zero context to this outing, another reminder that the International Cricket Council (ICC) needs to the rethink the way it structures its fixtures.
While England and India are trying to cram five Tests into as little time as possible, other teams continue to suck the hind teat of scheduling.
The two sides have met in Tests on just seven occasions and South Africa has never lost, drawing only once. The gap in talent and ability cannot be disputed and while the South Africans will almost certainly want to extend their away record of not having lost a series in eight years, there is a great opportunity to test just how deep the rabbit hole of talent goes.
South Africa’s one-off Test against Zimbabwe is the ideal time to put some of its rookies on trial. Cricket South Africa named an unchanged squad to the one which triumphed in Sri Lanka, meaning Kyle Abbott, Wayne Parnell, Dane Piedt and Stiaan van Zyl have all got the nod once again.
Consistency in selection has been one of South Africa’s strengths in the Test squad over the last few years, but there is no practice quite like match-practice and it’d be worthwhile to give some of the untried players a chance. There are three possible swaps: at the top of the batting order, the spin bowler and a seam bowler.
There is some debate over the opening berth. Dean Elgar’s century in Colombo came under pressure and it is understandable that, after the departure of Graeme Smith, South Africa did not want to unsettle the batting order too much and persisted with Alviro Petersen. There is, however, concern about Petersen’s form. He has not scored a hundred for over a year and got out twice after getting a start in Colombo. He’s had a decent run with his English county, Somerset. Petersen averages 40.33 in the Championship this season with four fifties and one hundred. Last season he was the second-highest run scorer for the county, despite having played only half the number of games as most of the other players. Transferring that form to the international stage has been a struggle which perhaps indicates a technical shortcoming rather than a form issue. Petersen is also rumoured to be keen on singing a Kolpak contract when his international time is up, so it would not be a great loss.
South Africa has a few options for opening. Cobras Southpaw Stiaan van Zyl is not a natural opener in the four-day, but has batted everywhere from three to six . He also often opens in the limited overs format and could transition to opening in the longer form, too. With a Test against Zimbabwe and a home series against the West Indies to come over the South African summer, trialling the youngster would be worth a shot instead of having to throw somebody into the deep end when the team goes on tour next year.
The other option could be to promote Faf du Plessis up the order and stick Van Zyl in at number three. Alternatively, and perhaps more radically, Quinton de Kock, who is the other opening batsman in the team, could open with AB de Villiers returning to keeping wicket and Van Zyl slotting in lower down the order. Whatever the formula, South African certainly aren’t short of options, but it is imperative to try these combinations out when the opportunity presents itself.
Elsewhere, the spin department is severely lacking. Dane Piedt could also be given a chance ahead of Imran Tahir. Tahir’s failure to remain consistent in conditions which really should have aided him remains a worry. Piedt topped the wicket-taking charts in the domestic four-day competition last season and was prone to getting turn on wickets which did not favour spinners. A debut in a more spinner-friendly Sri Lanka would have been a dream. But perhaps a chance to prove that he can live up to the hype of being a South African spinner who can actually turn the ball, whatever the conditions, will be a challenge Piedt relishes more.
Laslty, there are the quick bowlers. Managing Dale Steyn is a priority for the South Africans and if there is anyone who has earned himself a break from a Test without context, it’s him. In Abbot and Parnell, South Africa have two very different but apt bowlers. Abbott’s recent run in four-day county cricket earned him 36 wickets at an average of 20.33 in nine outings, a better return than any other player in the Hampshire side. Parnell is a left-arm alternative and can crank up the pace, but hasn’t quite reached Test level just yet. After Abbott’s stellar Test debut, he has been around the side. He has not been able to displace any of the regular bowlers, but has consistently performed domestically – both at home and overseas – and deserves a chance to prove himself once again, even if that chance is to come in conditions not exactly conducive to bowling.
What is clear from South Africa’s squad selection is that they are not without options. There is depth and the selected players are but a small sample of the other players knocking on the door. However, it is vital that these players know that it is not a closed shop – and that they are given the opportunities they rightfully deserve. DM
Photo: South Africa’s Wayne Parnell makes a delivery during the One-Day International (ODI) against Pakistan at Centurion November 30 2013 REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko
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