Batting in focus as Proteas gun for Test glory against an old foe
Dean Elgar will shoulder a lot of responsibility at the top of the order, but the South Africans will need their best players to fire as a collective if they hope to claim the desired results against England.
The Proteas have progressed steadily over the course of a challenging and significant multiformat tour to England. After sharing the ODI spoils with the hosts, and claiming T20I series victories against England and Ireland, they are in a positive space heading into a three-Test showdown with the old enemy.
Earlier this season, the Proteas beat top-ranked India in South Africa before drawing a series with the Black Caps in New Zealand. They have reason to believe that another major success is within reach.
At the same time, they should know why a Test series triumph in England will require a step up in intensity and composure.
There’s a buzz in the UK about the national side and the type of cricket they have played since Brendon McCullum took the coaching reins.
Dean Elgar — a warrior-like batter and an unflinching leader — intends to tackle England’s “Bazball” tactics head on. South Africa certainly has the players to unsettle England’s batting lineup, and the local conditions may suit the Proteas’ quick bowlers.
Whether the Proteas batters can master these conditions and post totals of substance remains to be seen.
South Africa enjoyed much success when touring England in the 2000s and early 2010s. In 2017, however, a less experienced unit was routinely exposed, and a disastrous series ended Heino Kuhn’s Test career and Russell Domingo’s tenure as head coach.
Batters bolstered great side of 2012
Five years earlier, the Proteas boasted a more experienced and balanced Test team, arguably the greatest South African XI.
The point was made on the eve of the third and decisive Test at Lord’s when Hashim Amla — who scored a record-breaking 311 in the first fixture of the series — made an astounding claim.
He was asked to comment on his ascent to the top of the batting rankings and his status as one of the world’s premier Test players. How did he feel about being the best?
Amla smiled before responding: “I’m not even the second-best batsman in my team.”
That Proteas side included Jacques Kallis — the third-most prolific run-scorer to date — as well as the supremely gifted AB de Villiers. At the time, some felt that Amla’s comment was self-effacing. Those in the know recognised that Amla was stating what he believed were the facts.
That there were as many as three South African players in the “best batter” conversation was a statement in itself.
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Back then, world-class players such as Amla, Kallis and De Villiers often built on the platform supplied by gritty openers of the calibre of Graeme Smith, Alviro Petersen and Jacques Rudolph. JP Duminy — and subsequently Faf du Plessis and Quinton de Kock — bolstered the lower-middle order, and often translated good starts by the top six into gargantuan team totals.
These senior players shaped big games and series. It’s worth noting that that team was equipped with the world-class seam combination of Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander, Morné Morkel and Kallis. The batting contributions, however, proved to be paramount during that golden era.
Pressure on senior batters
Smith’s side won 2-1 against England in 2008. De Villiers top-scored for the tourists on that tour (384 runs at an average of 64), followed by Smith (369 at 61.50) and Neil McKenzie (339 at 48.42).
Across the four Tests, Smith and McKenzie put on 50 or more for the first wicket on four occasions.
Smith’s Proteas beat England 2-0 in 2012 and shot to the top of the rankings as a result. As many as four South Africans featured among the top-five run scorers.
Amla was the best of the lot (482 runs at an average of 120.50). Smith was third, (272 at 54.40), followed by Kallis (262 at 65.50) and Petersen (244 at 61).
A couple of senior players fired on the 2017 tour, but individual contributions failed to compensate for a collective batting failure.
England bossed the batting stats, with Joe Root averaging 57.62 across the series. Elgar was the only South African to score a century across the four games, and Elgar and Amla were the only Proteas batters to average more than 40 on that tour.
Across four Tests, the opening combination of Elgar and Kuhn contributed a paltry 109 runs at an average of 18. From there, the Proteas struggled to build, with the top six combining for only seven partnerships of 50 or more.
As a collective, the Proteas posted totals in excess of 250 on just three occasions.
Can the Proteas flip the script?
As was the case in 2017, the Proteas will look to Elgar to set the tone at the top of the order. It remains to be seen whether Sarel Erwee — who impressed in the series against New Zealand — can support Elgar in what will be seam-friendly conditions.
Du Plessis and De Kock have retired from Test cricket since the last tour to England. Temba Bavuma has been ruled out of the coming series due to an elbow injury.
Given the absence of these senior statesmen, a series victory in England appears a tough ask.
And yet, this Proteas side was written off before the recent series against India, and again before their meeting with New Zealand. There is a strong culture in the group and, going by the results, they are moving in the right direction.
Keegan Petersen, Rassie van der Dussen and Aiden Markram will be in the spotlight over the next few weeks.
As the aforementioned stats suggest, the Proteas will need their best players to fire as a collective if they hope to challenge England and claim the desired results.
Elgar will shoulder a lot of responsibility at the top of the order, but unless others like Erwee, Petersen, Van der Dussen and Markram contribute — individually and as part of significant partnerships — the Proteas will fall short of their goal. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.