Comment - Challenges Ahead For South Africa Selectors
Graeme Smith's retirement, coupled with Jacques Kallis calling time on his career at the back end of 2013 means South Africa’s selectors have been left with much to ponder ahead of choosing a side to tour Sri Lanka in July.
Such is the uncertainty in the air that arguably only three batsmen are assured of a long term place in the starting XI: Hashim Amla, AB de Villiers and Faf du Plessis, all of whom can boast averages in excess of 50 over the last two years.
These three prolific batsmen are likely to occupy positions three to five, with du Plessis stepping into the hefty shoes of Kallis.
For the near future at least JP Duminy also looks relatively secure in the side, whether that be batting at six or seven. Duminy has largely struggled in Test cricket, his career average sitting at just 34.7 and last seven Tests yielding an average of a mere 29.3 - although a century in the second Test against Australia provided a timely reminder of his talents.
Duminy’s major saving grace however is his ever improving off-spin, which has gone someway to addressing South Africa's balance issues following the loss of Kallis' all-round skills.
Alviro Petersen and Dean Elgar for the short term are the incumbents of the opener berths, yet there are question marks over both. At 33 Petersen is not getting any younger and an average of just 29.5 across the last 12 months with just a single century hardly inspires confidence.
That he returned to his favoured spot for the final Test against Australia despite Elgar excelling in his absence at Port Elizabeth suggests the selectors maintain faith for the moment, but if failures persist that will surely wear thin.
Elgar, in his brief Test career has hardly convinced with an average of just 29.5 from nine Tests, although for the majority of that time he has batted in the middle order rather than his preferred top order birth.
Elgar undoubtedly deserves a chance opening the batting, given his strengths predominantly lend themselves to such a role, further to that a first-class average of 43.2 with 19 centuries from 96 games is as good as anybody else around the domestic circuit.
At 26 he is still relatively young and having been handed a central contract following Smith’s retirement it is clear South Africa are ready to afford a prolonged opportunity.
The six batsman named above are all likely to be in the side for the first Test against Sri Lanka in July.
Should de Villiers gain the captaincy then it would be no great shock to see South Africa relieve him of the pressure of having to keep wicket alongside leading the side and being the marque batsman, meaning Quinton de Kock who made a Test debut against Australia to become a permanent fixture.
Even though the current starting XI looks decided for the short term, it is hardly set in stone - in particular the position of Petersen. There is plenty of opportunity for batsman to force their way in, certainly when compared against what 12 months ago appeared a concrete batting line-up.
Unfortunately for South Africa the batting cupboard is hardly brimming. A game between South Africa and a South Africa Composite XI prior to the commencement of the Australia side, albeit on a green top saw nobody lay down any significant marker - only de Kock passed 50 for the Composite XI.
Ideally South Africa would want an extra opener on the plane to Sri Lanka given the solidarity of the middle order; yet such players in that role are in short supply.
Of the 10 leading run-scorers in this year’s Sunfoil Series encouragingly four are openers however three of those are aged over 30. Stephen Cook, the youngest of that trio at 31, unfortunately also averaged the lowest with a return of 36.7, whilst an average of 27.2 in the previous season counts against him.
The opportunity for 33-year-old Andrew Puttick has probably come too late, despite averaging over 40 in both the previous two campaigns and boasting a career average of 41.5, while David White (32) doesn’t possess the past record to support of a terrific season that saw him average 49.
Divan van Wyk is the sole opener under 30 to feature in that list with an average of 54.5 and three hundreds from just eight games. He would very much be a wildcard selection, with this being by far Van Wyk’s most productive year however if South Africa are insistent on a genuine opener as part of the Sri Lanka tour party he looks the most viable option.
Young pair Temba Bavuma and Reeza Hendricks have shown glimpses of their talents with breakthrough campaigns, particularly the former who averaged 39.6 in 2013/14. Neither have the consistent runs to force a place in Sri Lanka but if they are able to maintain their form during the 2014/15 season then future opportunities could come their way.
If South Africa do look elsewhere in terms of batting cover then promising pair Stiaan van Zyl and Rilee Rossouw stand at the front of the line, van Zyl having come second only to Neil McKenzie in 2012/13, scored more runs than any other batsman during the recently concluded season, with a hefty 933 runs from ten games at an impressive rate of 58.3 - a run that included three centuries and two scores in excess of 90.
It is not just the number of runs in van Zyl’s favour but the manner in which they have arrived; two of those three hundreds coming in victories where no other player passed three figures.
Rossouw, the youngest South African ever to reach 1,000 first-class runs was not quite as prolific with 644 runs at 42.9 ranking him eight in the overall. Like van Zyl though, the attacking left-hander scored three tons over the course of the season and the 24 year old can also call on consistent success with a solid campaign in 2012/13 which resulted in an average of 48.5.
Although lacking the same consistency as van Zyl there have been the occasional flashes of brilliance from Rossouw. For instance the 111 he scored on a pitch where the highest innings score was a mere 262 or the sensational 127 off 122 balls that laid the platform for what would have been a remarkable chase of 427 had Knights pulled it off - as it was Rossouw’s wicket triggered a collapse from 298 for one to 402 all out.
Both Rossouw and van Zyl participated in that Composite XI fixture and are clearly in the selectors' thoughts - in that game the former contributed just two runs, whilst van Zyl did win some respect with a gutsy unbeaten 21 in an innings where his side had been reduced to 15 for five.
One option for South Africa if Petersen continues to toil could be to utilise de Kock in his favoured opening slot which would allow for another middle-order player to come in, although an impressive 2012/13 in which scored 559 runs in six games has been followed up with just 11 runs in four first-class innings this summer.
With the Sri Lankan series being over two Tests only, it is likely South Africa will only select one batsman as cover and should they not look to an out and out opener then that batsman is likely to be either van Zyl or Rossouw.
The South African selectors traditionally do tend to err on the side of caution which suggests that the slightly more mature van Zyl, backed by his sheer weight of runs might overcome the naturally blessed yet inconsistent flair of Rossouw, particularly in conditions that will be alien to both.
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