Sport

SA VS ENGLAND CRICKET

Proteas batters must step up in deciding Test at the Oval

Proteas batters must step up in deciding Test at the Oval
Proteas captain Dean Elgar plays down the leg side on the first day of the second Test against England at Old Trafford, Manchester on 25 August. (Photo: Steve Bond / PPAUK)

The Proteas have a chance to win a Test series in England for the first time in a decade in the deciding third Test starting at the Oval on Thursday.

How to score a century seems to be the most vexing issue for South Africa’s batters as they head into the deciding third Test against England at the Oval in South London.

The Proteas top order batting unit has misfired throughout the series. The top six contributed just 419 runs in three innings — an average of 23.2 per top six specialist. No one has scored a century either, with opener Sarel Erwee’s 73 being the top score by a South African in the series.

Despite the batting issues, the Proteas are level in the series after winning the first Test by an innings and 12 runs at Lord’s. They lost the second by an innings and 85 runs at Old Trafford in Manchester.

The victory at Lord’s was thanks to a stunning bowling performance by the seamers in particular, and good support from the lower batting order. Marco Jansen scored 48 and Keshav Maharaj 41 out of a total of 326 in the only innings the Proteas batters needed at Lord’s. Kagiso Rabada’s inspired seaming unit did the rest.

But a week later at Old Trafford, after winning the toss and batting under grey skies, the Proteas crumbled to 151 all out and were never in the game.

Although it’s a given that a team needs 20 wickets to win a Test, the bowlers need some runs to play with. Without meaningful contributions from the top order, beating this England side is going to be extremely difficult.

“Up front it’s been pretty tough,” Elgar admitted in his pre-Test media conference. “I think if we look at both teams, we haven’t executed in terms of runs yet.

“It’s been pretty tough getting through the new ball, which is always going to be a challenge in the United Kingdom. But it’s been a challenge generally everywhere in the world.  

“I know it’s (runs) around the corner and I understand and know how much top-order runs means for a team to set up a successful chance of victory. It has been a bit of a frustration, but it’s something we’ve worked on. We have spoken at length on the topic, but now it’s time to walk the walk.” 

Elgar trailed off with a familiar steely glare. There was no secret that he has set out a challenge for himself and for the batting unit to be better.

Changes?

To that end, there will be at least one batting change to the top order, with Rassie van der Dussen ruled out of the decider due to a broken finger sustained at Old Trafford. He has already had surgery in South Africa and will miss the T20 World Cup in Australia as well.

But his absence opens the door for a new batter and Ryan Rickelton appears to be the front-runner to step in.

The left-handed Rickelton played both Tests against Bangladesh earlier this year and averaged 38, top scoring with 42. They’re not stellar numbers, but the sample size of his work at Test level is small.

But last South African summer, he was one of the form batters locally, scoring three centuries and a 90 in the first-class competition. He added two more centuries and another four half centuries playing for Northamptonshire in the earlier part of the English summer. He has done the work and Elgar said he would start.

“He’s (Ryan) had a decent stint in the UK now, playing a bit of county cricket,” Elgar said. “So, it’s his time to shine, hopefully. We’re pretty confident he’ll be filling that spot left by Rassie.” 

The elephant in the room that can’t be ignored is Aiden Markram’s form. The once-excellent top-order batter has lost all confidence and averages a smidgen more than 15 in his last 10 Tests. He simply cannot continue with numbers like that.

This opens the door for Khaya Zondo for his second cap. Zondo earned a cap as fielding substitute against Bangladesh but didn’t bat, so this could be a “proper” debut for the 32-year-old.

Although his first-class record is modest — an average of 31.78 in 133 matches — his form last summer was the best of his career. It included a superb 203 not out for the Dolphins.

Considering Markram’s contributions with the bat in recent years, it is almost impossible to justify his continued inclusion as a specialist batter. Zondo should get a crack.

“We’ve given it thought and a lot of tough decisions have been made,” Elgar said. “I’m sure there will be one or two extra changes.

“I’m extremely confident in the guys that will be given the opportunity. It’s obviously a big Test for us, but I think everyone’s raring to go. We’ve got fit players, which is nice to have… we’ve got a lot of options, and there might be one or two other changes.”

Petersen has a point to prove

proteas petersen

Keegan Petersen of the Proteas in action against India at Newlands in Cape Town on 12 January 2022. (Photo: Ryan Wilkisky / BackpagePix)

Keegan Petersen, the elegant No 3, also has a point to prove after a mediocre series that has yielded only 87 runs, which included a gritty 42 at Old Trafford.

He is also under pressure to perform and build on the promise he showed during last summer’s home series against India.

“It’s obvious we need to score hundreds up top,” Petersen told reporters. “It hasn’t been there for a while, and the lower order has saved us a few times, but I think it is evident the batsmen need to step up and get a couple of big scores.

“I think both Test matches (in this series) were lost in the first innings when it comes to batting… the team who can play that first innings better, is the team that will come out on top.

“It’s all mental. I don’t think we’ve struggled to get in. It’s getting starts and getting out, that’s the problem. It’s the situation in the middle that you have to prepare for, and you know it’s going to be tough.

“You have to at least try to fight through that tough period. That’s where you have to challenge yourself mentally all the time. There’s no real process of doing that. It’s just going to happen in the moment.”

England will include the uncapped Harry Brook in place of the injured Jonny Bairstow for the final Test. That was confirmed by captain Ben Stokes.

Bairstow has been in brilliant form this year, scoring 1,061 runs, including six centuries in 10 Tests. DM

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