Cape Town – Place “not losing” at a higher premium than winning, the latter an event that would occur against strong odds.
While that may sound like a negative template, it is probably the most suitable way for South Africa to approach their formidable introduction to World Test Championship activity: against India in the first of three contests beginning at Visakhapatnam on Wednesday (06:00 SA time).
Let’s face it, the most pressing task for the Proteas – at least initially in the series, before they can even contemplate any greater sense of adventure – is really to try to prove more durable and resilient than they did on the harrowing last tour in 2015, when they were grilled 3-0.
That will apply to a special extent to their batting, which had been the overwhelming bugbear on the last occasion, flimsy totals on prodigious, sometimes ill-prepared turners being the order of the day roughly from start to finish.
While the pitches should be less lottery-like this time around, Enoch Nkwe’s debut as a Test head coach is not made any easier by the vast surrender of experience and excellence since the 2015 trek, in the shape of the retirements of both Hashim Amla and AB de Villiers.
Between them, the middle-order kingpins accumulated 18 047 runs planet-wide in the premier format during lengthy careers.
That enormous surrender in proven majesty badly impedes a remaining batting arsenal that is collectively, scarily low in both confidence and consistently compelling recent form.
Under the circumstances, it might well be madness for South Africa not to field the entire specialist batting stock in their squad (if you exclude the reserve wicketkeeper Heinrich Klaasen) for the first Test.
It would curb them to only four out-and-out bowlers, but that is increasingly the way many Test teams are setting out their stalls these days, in an era low on genuine all-rounders.
The Proteas would also have the relative comfort of knowing that they have some competent enough “fill-in” bowlers from the batting ranks: Dean Elgar and Aiden Markram for spin and Theunis de Bruyn for disciplined medium-pace fare.
On any given day in India, that trio should be capable of weighing in with 15 overs or thereabouts between them to lessen the load on the front-liners.
But who would that main quartet be, if that is, indeed, the balance between resources in team makeup that the brains trust opts for?
While local conditions will naturally have a say, two seamers and two spinners seems the likeliest route to take.
If a pace duo (rather than trio) is favoured, then Kagiso Rabada and Vernon Philander appear the most obvious choices, the former expected to provide an element of venom, especially while the ball is still relatively hard and shiny, and Philander settling into his tight, patience-examining mode just outside off-stump.
The hope would also be that reverse swing assist both men later in the contest, something reasonably common in India if the surface turns gradually abrasive.
Neither of the extra pacemen in the squad, Lungi Ngidi and the uncapped Anrich Nortje, has yet played a Test match in India, and Ngidi only one on the subcontinent as a whole – against Sri Lanka with no pronounced success at Colombo in 2018.
As for the spin area, it is highly unlikely that the Proteas would field two left-arm orthodox customers, so incumbent Keshav Maharaj, fresh off a rosy county stint for Yorkshire in 2019, will play ahead of another rookie in Senuran Muthusamy, despite the latter’s fairly inviting batting credentials.
That would allow room for the variety and angle-change provided by off-spinner Dane Piedt: the popular Cape Cobras figure would be playing his first Test since August 2016, although his seven so far have seen him grab a tidy 24 wickets.
Don’t completely write off the possibility of the Proteas sacrificing a batsman, although that would mean gloveman Quinton de Kock shifting one berth higher to No 6 – traditionally he doesn’t come off in a great way there – and the Indians believing more strongly than ever that they can get the 20-wickets job done without excessive toil all over again.
A touch of conservatism in selection, if you like, by going batting-heavy, seems the right medicine on paper for the underdogs, considering the unpleasant ravages of their recent history in India …
*Possible SA team: Aiden Markram, Dean Elgar, Theunis de Bruyn, Faf du Plessis (capt), Temba Bavuma, Zubayr Hamza, Quinton de Kock, Vernon Philander, Dane Piedt, Keshav Maharaj, Kagiso Rabada
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