Wednesday, 7 March 2012

South Africa Have No.1 To Play For

It might seem far fetched given the irascible and contrary nature of New Zealand cricketers - especially at home - but South Africa must be seriously considering the opportunity to take England's top spot in Test cricket from them. To do so, they'll have to beat the Kiwis in all three of the Tests of this late summer series which may appear to be somewhat ambitious. As Lucky Ned Pepper might have said, "I'd call that bold talk Rooster," but Gary Kirsten wouldn't appreciate the analogy.

Looking through the two teams, its hard not to think it's possible, baring injury and discounting that Kiwi mongrel factor. South Africa have a settled batting line up and the best attack.

Amla and Kallis - weight of runs
Despite the collapses against Australia (Newlands) and Sri Lanka (Kingsmead), this is a batting line up which bristles with runs scored quickly. Graeme Smith will return after an injury before the ODI's and perhaps this marks the future for the South African captain, with a concentration on Test cricket. His off stump will be a well where Chris Martin will go for drink and has done as successfully as any other lefties. His opening partner will be Alviro Petersen, who has taken a while to establish himself in the side, most recently being bypassed against the Australians by Jacques Rudolph. There is greater benefit for South Africa to have Rudolph at six and so it proved against Sri Lanka. Hashim Amla, probably with Michael Clarke the form batsman in Test cricket and Jacques Kallis will occupy three and four.

Kallis was recently voted as the best Test allrounder of all time in a cricketragics poll and his figures make a compelling argument which will convince those who never actually saw Gary Sobers bat. Batting, bowling and catching figures in any form of the game for Kallis are quite emphatic but they aren't performances stuck  in the past from a fading champion. Six centuries in his last sixteen Test innings put that thought to bed. His last Test innings of 224 against Sri Lanka in early January in his 150th Test is one of two doubles in that list. He has a particular penchant for murdering weaker attacks. Hmmmm.

If all of that wasn't threatening enough, AB deVilliers will guide the middle order in taking any runs Kallis and Amla leave laying about. Since his failure at Newlands against Australia, he has four 50's and a century in six innings and was in superb form both as captain and batsman in the ODI's. Like Kallis, he's coming off a big hundred in his last innings against Sri Lanka.

Its an awesome top six but it can be broken and perhaps the slower New Zealand pitches might create doubt in their imperious shots to short balls and confident driving.

Mark Boucher, the most successful wicket keeper in Test cricket with 5000 runs and nearly 550 dismissals behind him, maintains his spot but there a definite signs that he is fading. In truth, he shouldn't be batting at seven as he's no longer as effective as mere mortals such as Matt Prior or Allan Knott or the Australians of note such as Rod Marsh or Ian Healy and certainly not in the class of Adam Gilchrist but then who is. There isn't much to choose between 7, 8 or 9, with Vernon Philander and Dale Steyn the others. Each of them are capable of fun runs but not lengthy stays.

Vernon Philander 30 wickets at 13
Dale Steyn will again lead the attack with the phenomenon, Philander. Touted as the best fast bowler in the world for some time now, Steyn needs to live up to the title, something he hasn't done this summer. The Australian's found him nothing special and he seems to have lacked rhythm in his outings but he's also a fierce competitor and the chance to take his side to No 1 might be enough for him to strap the spurs on. Philander is remarkable, with 30 wickets since his debut against the Aussies, including 4 five wicket hauls. He's a rarity, for he moves the ball both ways through the air and off the deck and combinations contained there in. If he stays fit and in form, he'll be a difficult customer to work out and better. Again, the slower decks might reduce the danger from the lift his big frame gets but the atmospheric conditions will greatly aid him moving the ball through the air.

The final three spots make for an interesting dilemma for Smith. Before this summer, Morne Morkel was an automatic selection and he was opening the bowling with Steyn but the emergence of Philander has relegated him to first change. Like Steyn, his form has been ordinary and he is under direct and significant pressure from Marchant de Lange who debuted  against Sri Lanka with 7-81 and has starred in limited appearances on this tour. The answer might be to play four quicks, as New Zealand will but then the Kiwis also have Vettori. Imran Tahir, made his debut against the Australians and has played all the Tests this summer. His selection was heralded by Smith, excited to have a leg spinner in the side but as yet, he has done little to justify continued selection with 14 wickets at 36 and a best of 3-55 in 150 Test overs. If Smith can't let go of Morkel and recognises the value de Lange will bring to the side, then they must go in with four quicks. A leg spinner on a slow wicket is of lower benefit than a quick.

University Oval, Dunedin - dark and wet
The unlucky player is JP Duminy. England and then India banished him from the Test side in 09/10 but his recent form in shortened forms of the game has been good. On this tour, he has been the best batsmen in the touring party in the T20's and ODI's which have constituted the battles so far. If Rudolph fails, Duminy might win his Test cap back.

It's the weather that will act as an active 12th man for the Kiwis. The opening day looks like being very wet and cold and it won't be until the fourth day that temperatures climb to the high teens. You may as well play cricket in Hobart.

South Africa 2-0.