South Africa admitted that they were lucky to escape with a drawn Test and a series win after rain washed out the final day. The biggest consistency this tour has been the top order’s inconsistency and while there is some valuable time off to come for the Test specialists, selectors have some difficult decisions to make. By ANTOINETTE MULLER.
In top level sport, consistency is key and the South African national cricket team has certainly been consistent in their series against New Zealand. But it’s not been the kind of consistency they want to be associated with. The Proteas were gifted with a great escape on the fifth and final day of the third Test against the Black Caps when rain washed away a full day. Their biggest consistency on this tour has been the top order’s fragility with the bat.
This tour saw the top order crumble to 64 for three in the first innings of the first Test and 59 for five in the second. In the first Test, they stuttered to 22 for three followed by 94 for six in the second. Batsmen in the middle to lower middle order took four of the six top batting averages with Du Plessis, Bavuma, De Kock and Philander doing the best. Elgar was the only player in the top order to earn a spot in the best averages while Morne Morkel was the other player in the top six with an average of 49 following his 40 runs in Wellington and two other not-outs.
South Africa were staring down the barrel of a Test defeat on Wednesday– and a series draw. Having collapsed to 80 for five in their second innings and having managed just 314 in their first, South Africa were some way behind New Zealand’s 489 first innings total.
Faf du Plessis and Quinton de Kock were the last two recognised batsmen remaining and while the captain said that he was quite prepared to go out and play his “blockathon”, knuckling down is not a style that suits his partner. In fact, it corners him and often forces him into mistakes.
South Africa are the first to admit that they have some frailties in the batting department. While they managed to pull off a superb comeback in the second Test in order to ensure victory, just one century from all of their top order batsmen and just two batsmen scoring more than 200 runs in the series is not good enough.
“I’m pleased with another series win away from home but to be honest I think we played very much under par, especially the batting unit,” Du Plessis said afterwards.
The bowlers, too, learnt some tough lessons. While they can hardly shoulder the bulk of the blame, star men Kagiso Rabada and Vernon Philander had a tough outing. Rabada averaged over 38.00 with the ball. Philander over 100. The conditions might have caught South Africa by surprise a bit, but adapting is part of the game.
Still, South Africa will breathe a sigh of relief, for now. This tour has put a bit of a dampener on an excellent season by the side – who have gone from being ranked seventh in the world nine months ago to second now. But it will force some complex introspection ahead of what is the team’s busiest period in recent memory.
A brief reprieve for those who do not take part in the Indian Premier League will now follow before the side heads over to England for a full tour and the Champions Trophy sandwiched in-between. For the players who do not straddle the two formats, finding form and game time could be a challenge.
The opening conundrum will be one of the biggest challenges. Stephen Cook was handed a national contract earlier this year, but was the worst performer with the bat in New Zealand. He paid the price and was dropped in the third and final Test, but memories are short. The opener had scored two centuries in two Tests (at home against Sri Lanka and away against Australia) in the four matches preceding this dreadful slump in form. His replacement in the final dig in New Zealand, Theunis de Bruyn, didn’t exactly fare much better.
Neither player will have time in the middle before the tour to England, so it is up to the selectors to decide whether they want to play it safe or go for a more radical option. South Africa’s options certainly aren’t limited. Moving De Kock up the order – and using him exclusively as a batsman – is not impossible. England can be a notoriously difficult place to keep wicket, so blooding a rookie won’t sit too well with the conservatives.
Hashim Amla is going through a lean patch, but his experience is not worth sacrificing for a tour as important as the one to England. He might be more comfortable dropping down to number five with Du Plessis stepping in at three to provide some stability. JP Duminy has surely ridden his luck now and Rilee Rossouw must surely be wondering what could have been had he not signed that Kolpak contract. Temba Bavuma remains a valuable player, but could possibly benefit from batting at five should Du Plessis be shuffled.
Whatever happens, players will be aware of just how important the tour to England is. They have not lost a series there since 1998 and a victory will leave them well-placed to regain the coveted number one Test ranking spot. DM
Photo: Faf du Plisses and Quinton de Kock at the end of play on Day 4 of the 3rd test match between New Zealand Black Caps and South Africa Proteas. International test match cricket. Seddon Park, Hamilton, New Zealand on March 28 2017. Photo: Andrew Cornaga / www.photosport.nz
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