Cape Town – The unforgiving nature of summer conditions in Durban may mean bad news for two batsmen – most likely Theunis de Bruyn and Zubayr Hamza – in South Africa’s team makeup plans for the first Test against Sri Lanka from Wednesday.
It is difficult to believe that the Proteas will restrict themselves to a four-man attack (only three of them likely to be pacemen), considering how stubbornly humid and energy-sapping Kingsmead is fancied to be for a mid-February Test match.
This is also a time, of course, when the SA brains trust are turning their thoughts with increasing conviction to the needs of the World Cup in England and Wales from late May, and will only be too aware of the foolhardiness of over-bowling key elements of their both-formats strike arsenal like Kagiso Rabada and Dale Steyn in the lead-up.
Apart from the two-Test series, the Proteas are also due to play five one-day internationals and three Twenty20 internationals against the currently limited, poor-travelling ‘Lankans before the domestic season wraps up for them toward the end of March.
Kingsmead is no longer the “green mamba” of old for the fast bowling trade; backs generally have to be bent a bit more by seamers in modern Test and first-class cricket there for good returns by them.
So while the Proteas have fair enough reason to suspect they might be able to complete the all-important 20-wickets with a mere quartet of bowlers – left-arm spinner Keshav Maharaj highly likely to be one of them on his home ground, and ideal for controlling one end in the heat – it could have a detrimental impact on their freshness and fitness.
Head coach Ottis Gibson is highly likely to favour blitzing the tourists on the pace front through Rabada, Steyn and the revelation of the prior home series against Pakistan, Duanne Olivier, who scooped up 24 wickets at a sublime average of 14.70.
But an all-rounder as fourth seam factor would help spread the daily load of overs much more evenly, especially in the event of a front-liner picking up a niggle or something more serious, and in that respect South Africa should feel happy enough to field either of Vernon Philander or currently uncapped youngster Wiaan Mulder in the No 7 slot in the batting order.
It is difficult to envisage the Proteas somehow putting out an XI that accommodates both Philander and Mulder.
As much as a first look at the 20-year-old Mulder would be an educative event at this level, the veteran Philander still looks the more logical pick – indeed, he may well cut the nod even if the Proteas decide to curtail their pace onslaught to three specialists.
If there is cloud cover around (it looks as though there will be at times), Philander’s ability to nip the ball around off a metronomic line and length would make him a valued asset, even if three previous Test appearances at Kingsmead have seen him bag a reasonably modest six wickets at 34.16.
But he could also be the most high-profile omission if Gibson and company feel a four-man-in-total attack will be sufficient against these foes who, like the earlier Pakistanis, will not have had much time at all to acclimatise to South African pitch challenges.
In that case, they will face the dilemma of which of De Bruyn and Hamza becomes the additional batsman in the mix, with wicketkeeper Quinton de Kock shifting to No 7 instead of being stationed a notch higher at six for this one.
Though at the disadvantage in certain respects of sporting only one Test appearance thus far to De Bruyn’s nine, the 23-year-old Hamza showed promise in a resolute maiden first knock of 41 against Pakistan at the Wanderers, and has since also registered a confidence-swelling double century for the Cape Cobras against the Dolphins at Maritzburg.
It is possible that in the eyes of the Proteas team strategists he has now sneaked into a bay ahead of De Bruyn on the proverbial taxi rank.
But in conditions where bowling fatigue – especially given that CWC planning – is likelier to be an issue of greater concern for South Africa than the moderate risk of going in a batsman light for this particular five-day fixture, a personal inclination is to suspect they will go in with this XI, meaning “bibs” for Messrs Mulder, Hamza and De Bruyn: Aiden Markram, Dean Elgar, Hashim Amla, Faf du Plessis (capt), Temba Bavuma, Quinton de Kock, Vernon Philander, Keshav Maharaj, Dale Steyn, Kagiso Rabada, Duanne Olivier.
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