Tue, 17 Sep 2019

Proteas: Enoch faces early brain-teaser

News24
15 Aug 2019, 23:40 GMT+10

Cape Town - It makes things difficult enough that South Africa will play their first three matches of the ICC World Test Championship at Indian venues where they have never previously played the format.

But new, interim team director (effectively also head coach) Enoch Nkwe faces another major head-scratcher over the next few weeks as he begins contemplating the complex matter of team balance for his Proteas charges in the contests at, respectively, Visakhapatnam, Ranchi and Pune.

Although preceded by a short Twenty20 international series, which will have little impact as a pointer to the environment facing the national side in the more crucial matter of the Tests, how correctly Nkwe and his closest confidantes structure the XI could be pivotal to the competitiveness levels of the reasonably heavy underdogs.

We already know - through confirmation earlier this week of the 15-strong Test party - that the Proteas will be putting out one of their least streetwise teams yet, regardless of specific composition, in terms of its familiarity to Indian multi-day conditions ... a situation aggravated by the recent retirements in quick succession of true legends Dale Steyn and Hashim Amla.

So if the tourists are to have any chance of either upsetting or at least significantly troubling their heavyweight hosts, they will need every possible duck in a smart row, related to the balance between their batting and bowling needs.

Unlike a team like England, sporting a genuine all-rounder within their top six in the shape of Ben Stokes (or even the less fancied Bangladesh with their priceless asset of Shakib Al Hasan), South Africa are among those having to weigh up, often on a match-by-match basis, how to ensure beefy enough resources in each department without compromising one too noticeably to the detriment of the other.

Early hunch: Nkwe and company will be so mindful of the Proteas' stark failings at the crease - even with a more experienced batting arsenal then - in the enormously painful last series in India during 2015, that the temptation will be overwhelming to "load" the batting.

That would translate into having wicketkeeper Quinton de Kock deployed at more customary No 7 rather than one berth higher where he has sometimes operated - though with noticeably leaner success, mind - before.

While it will be a surprise if Faf du Plessis's troops encounter the same, controversial and violently turning conditions that faced them in the 0-3 outcome in 2015 (for one thing, India trust their lively pace attack much more these days), they struggled woefully for decent totals then, despite the presence of proven gladiators Amla and AB de Villiers - now both out of the picture, in a frankly scary development.

At least to begin the series with, the Proteas may well be inclined to play all of their designated batsmen in the party, meaning a top seven comprising Messrs Markram, Elgar, De Bruyn, Du Plessis, Bavuma, Hamza and De Kock, albeit not necessarily in that exact order.

The only accomplished extra batting figure twiddling his thumbs, then, would be hitherto uncapped Rudi Second, although he also serves as the back-up gloveman on tour to De Kock.

That would leave space for just four bowling specialists, and in India that so often means a maximum of two seamers (Kagiso Rabada and Vernon Philander the favourites, if so?) and a need for a minimum of two spinners (likeliest to be left-armer Keshav Maharaj and off-spinner Dane Piedt).

The Proteas could then aim to coax some additional overs at times from part-time tweakers Dean Elgar and Aiden Markram, plus the steady enough occasional medium-pace fare of Theunis de Bruyn.

Where things might get more interesting, team balance-wise, is if history looks ominously like repeating itself, with serious dustbowls in prospect.

Under such circumstances, the visitors fielding all three main spinners (Maharaj, Piedt and new cap Senuran Muthusamy) becomes a slightly higher-likelihood scenario.

Dolphins player Muthusamy, 25, is a properly credible first-class all-rounder, given that his left-arm spin stats (128 scalps at 27.68) are backed up by a batting average of 33.41 and seven centuries.

That is, potentially, enough ammunition to suggest that the rookie left-hander, and the often enough resilient, more seasoned figure Philander, could share duties as all-rounders in berths seven and eight, simultaneously allowing for the comfort of a five-strong frontline attack.

But that also means chopping an out-and-out batsman.

Just how loudly (if at all?) Nkwe goes "ouch" at that thought, for another Indian-hosted series, may determine which way the Proteas go structurally in a few weeks' time at the fairly mystery-laden Visakhapatnam ...

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