ROHIT SANKAR | 3 JANUARY, 2018
South Africa’s Problem Of One Too Many
The return of AB de Villiers has made the middle-order more solid than ever.
South Africa have a problem of plenty heading into the first Test against India at Cape Town. With their bowling stalwart, Dale Steyn, and batting superman, AB de Villiers, returning, the hosts boast of an empowered squad.
They had struggled with injuries to their quicker men all through last year. The likes of Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander were all injured at different points last year and balancing the squad also turned out to be tough with Chris Morris injured most of the year. Injury concerns to Faf du Plessis and Quinton de Kock also seem to be over.
However, injury concerns are a thing of the past as 2018 welcomes South Africa with a cluster of fit and firing seam bowlers and a hoard of well oiled batsmen. They have pretty much covered all bases and cometh January 5, South Africa will be raring to have a go at the visiting Indians.
That said, with the full strength team available, South Africa have a problem of plenty. It isn't as concerning as having a shortage of options but it is no less of a nightmare choosing between Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel.
Here we try to identify South Africa's best XI and discuss their different conundrums enroute to picking them.
The seam attack and Maharaj
With Steyn returning and Philander, Morkel and Rabada available, South Africa will look to go full toll on the visitors and unleash a four-pronged seam attack in all likelihood. This would mean they have to choose between playing a spinner and an extra batsman.
Keshav Maharaj was a revelation last year for the Proteas and dropping him may not be the most feasible move. He was crucial in tying down the likes of Steven Smith, Kane Williamson and Joe Root since his debut and his tight spells create an avenue for the seamers to exploit from the other end.
This should put Maharaj in prime position to start for South Africa. With the spinner in, South Africa will have to prune down on their batting line-up and hope Vernon Philander fits the bill at no.7. The seamer has made telling contributions with the bat in recent times and has the temperament and technique to survive on bowling paradises. That should make the Proteas confident enough to push in five bowlers into the starting XI.
The Bavuma riddle and transformation targets
While adding an extra spinner makes them strong, Temba Bavuma - the sacrificial goat in all probability - will be hard done by. He had done nothing wrong since making the step up to Test cricket and if he misses out, it should be rather unlucky.
Transformation targets are not a thing of the last either. They are required to play two blacks and four coloured players over the course of a whole year across formats and if Bavuma has to sit out, it would mean South Africa go into Cape Town with just one black player (Kagiso Rabada) and three coloured players (Vernon Philander, Hashim Amla and Keshav Maharaj).
But transformation targets aren't checked on a series by series basis and it isn't something an irrelevant T20 series cannot fix. That said, they are in place for a reason and with Australia also set to tour in March, South Africa would need to keep an eye on their targets.
The all-rounder fix
In Chris Morris and Andile Phehlukwayo, South Africa have two out and out all-rounders but fitting them into the starting XI could be near impossible. While Phehlukwayo was phenomenal against the Zimbabweans, the addition of Steyn makes his position vulnerable.
Philander has stepped up with the bat and noticeably batted above Phehlukwayo against the Zimbabweans a week ago. This should mean the broad shouldered, gritty all-rounder will have to await his turn.
Morris, on the other hand, is returning from injury and although he is as exciting an option as Hardik Pandya, fitting him into the XI will be near impossible unless they choose to sit out Steyn for Morris in order to strengthen the batting without compromising on the bowling. But that should create quite an uproar and it seems unlikely South Africa would do that.
The return of the King
The return of AB de Villiers has made the middle-order more solid than ever. Faf du Plessis and Quinton de Kock are also expected to be fit in time for Cape Town. This makes the top six pretty much predictable although de Villiers may have to do keeping duties like he did against Zimbabwe if de Kock isn't fully recovered by then.
Dean Elgar and Aiden Markram would then be followed by a battalion of terrific batsmen in Hashim Amla, Faf du Plessis, AB de Villiers and Quinton de Kock. Depending on team composition, Bavuma may or may not figure in their plans. If he does, he should slot in above de Kock at no.6.
Predicted XI: Aiden Markram, Dean Elgar, Hashim Amla, Faf du Plessis (c), AB de Villiers, Quinton de Kock (wk), Vernon Philander, Keshav Maharaj, Kagiso Rabada, Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel.