South Africa have opted for a pace battery for the third Test against England beginning at the Wanderers on Thursday. The Test offers South Africa the opportunity to emerge from their transitional cocoon. By ANTOINETTE MULLER.
South Africa will get another taste of what life after Dale Steyn will be like when they step out to face England in the must-win third Test at the Wanderers on Thursday. Steyn missed most of South Africa’s tour to India through a groin injury, but recovered in time to feature in the first Test against England in Durban. He however picked up a shoulder injury in that match, and subsequently missed the New Year’s Test in Cape Town, and has now been sidelined for the Test at the Wanderers, too.
This does raise some questions over whether Steyn should even have played at Durban. When fit, he walks into any team in the world, but the question is whether he was match-fit. Prior to the Boxing Day outing, Steyn had not played competitive cricket for over a month. A stint in first-class cricket to get him through his overs in a match-intensity situation, instead of simply trundling through overs in the nets, might have been a better option.
There is no point in crying over strained fast bowlers, though. South Africa have been so fortunate with Steyn over the better part of the last decade. He hardly ever missed back-to-back Tests through injury. Everyone knew that the day would come when his body only had so much left to give, and they would have been at least partially prepared for it and it has showed. Morne Morkel has been key in Steyn’s absence. When he has had to lead the attack he has done an exceptional job, and thrived under the additional responsibility. Even when partnered with a rookie attack, Morkel has excelled. The psychological impact of losing their star strike-bowler in the middle of a match showed in Durban. But in Cape Town, even with England managing to pile more than 600 runs, the bowlers had their moments.
England were 223-5, after all, and all of this without the help of their pace ace. With the Highveld always offering the quicks so much more, South Africa have decided to exploit the conditions by going for an all-pace attack. Dane Piedt has been released back to his franchise to play domestic cricket and there are hints that uncapped Hardus Viljoen could make his debut on his home turf, following his two ten-fors in consecutive matches.
Viljoen, although somewhat wayward at times, has the raw pace that can unsettle batsmen. Chris Morris could remain in the side after his effort with the bat which means Kyle Abbott will probably be the unlucky player to miss out. These are the kinds of conditions in which South Africa’s fast bowlers thrive, but it will be crucial for the part-timers to play their part, too, just to ensure some relief in the heat.
With the bowling line-up sorted, the opening spot still remains up in the air. South Africa will have to decide whether they want to persist with Stiaan van Zyl or go for a more maverick approach of pushing the impatient and inexperienced Quinton de Kock up to open. That could mean a return for JP Duminy or Stiaan van Zyl dropping down the middle order. This solution is far from ideal. While Duminy does offer an extra part-time option, De Kock has shown that he still lacks the patience and application at Test level, and throwing him into the deep end to open on a deck which England’s bowlers will have a field day on might end up doing more harm than good. This kind of meddling could have been easily solved if South Africa had opted to pick a real opener who is in form – Stephen Cook – at the start of the series. But that ship has sailed and South Africa will have to do what they can with the batsmen at their disposal, and that’s where the challenge comes in.
In recent times, it has been South Africa’s batting that has let them down. For more than 12 months, the team could not clobber together a 100-run stand, and centuries for anyone other than AB de Villiers were few and far between. The deck on Newlands might have been flat, but at least their batsmen managed to regain some of their confidence. Still, South Africa will have to graft hard in this Test and they have to win it if they want to have a shot at still winning the series. Spots of rain and thunderstorms are forecast for almost every day of the Test, and both teams will have to adapt their strategy to get a positive result.
England already have a 0-1 lead and have nothing to lose by taking a more conservative approach. This will be the biggest Test for De Villiers, who took over the captaincy from Hashim Amla after he resigned at the end of the Newlands Test. Both teams have had more than a week to rest up, and any psychological damage that might have been done to England’s bowlers after they were out in the field for over 200 overs have surely been shaken off by now. South Africa will remain in their transitional period for some time, but the Wanderers Test offers the opportunity to take a giant leap out of that transitional cocoon. DM