A squad to turn the tide
A predictably one-sided first Test (of two) against Bangladesh failed to get in the way of the most important announcement of the week; that of the 15 players selected for the South African touring squad to Australia.
It is sad, but true, that no side in history has left this country and beaten Australia in a Test series there.
Not only that: since readmission in 1992 the Proteas have not beaten them in a home series either.
There is much justified confidence emanating from the camp, but that was the case in 2005, too, and there are enough survivors of the earlier squad to remind the newcomers of that fact. It’s interesting to recall the names of those who featured in the 2005 squad as a guide to where the game in this country has gone since.
Justin Kemp, Garnett Kruger and Jacques Rudolph opted for the Kolpak route into the English County Championship, while Nicky Boje and Shaun Pollock have retired from international cricket.
Herschelle Gibbs is in rehab and Charl Langeveldt probably cooked his international goose by refusing to tour India in March.
The 2005 squad was a 14-man affair, which means that the names above account for 50% of it. Australia won the series 2-0, so it is an interesting exercise to compare the relative merits of the members of this year’s squad who were not in Australia last time. They are Neil McKenzie, Hashim Amla, JP Duminy, Morne Morkel, Dale Steyn, Paul Harris, Robin Peterson and Lonwabo Tsotsobe.
McKenzie, Amla and Duminy take the places of Gibbs, Kemp and Rudolph, and this week’s trio has a definite edge. McKenzie, shamefully overlooked by the selectors for much of his career, has matured into a granite-hard grafter at the top of the order, the perfect corrective for Graeme Smith, who likes to shoot from the hip and sometimes needs to be persuaded both to button his lip and curb his desire to dominate with the bat.
Duminy is waiting for Jacques Kallis to retire to force his way into the line-up. The Western Province left-hander has all the stroke-playing ability of Gibbs, with none of the off-field drama to go with it. He also has a mind for the game and needs to be encouraged to bowl his offspin more frequently.
Amla is the jewel in the crown. His century against Bangladesh was another example of the quality he has shown around the world in the past 12 months.
Amla replaces Rudolph, whose best Test innings came in the first Test of the 2005 series. Rudolph batted through the final day against Glenn McGrath, Brett Lee and Shane Warne, and he deserved the plaudits that came his way.
The best praise you can direct at Amla is that the apex of Rudolph’s career would be no more than a staging post for the KwaZulu-Natalian, who has greatness written through him and will prove a stumbling block of immense proportions for the latest clutch of Australian bowlers.
And it is in the bowling department that this South African squad differs most from its predecessor. Makhaya Ntini and Kallis are the lone survivors, if you ignore the seven overs of offspin propelled by the captain. Andre Nel may have toured again this time, but an operation has left him hors de combat until the new year.
So the new ball will be rotated through Ntini, Morkel and Steyn, with the former in the unfamiliar position of seasoned pro, standing at mid-off to encourage the newcomers, the role adopted by Pollock in 2005.
This time last year Ntini seemed to be on borrowed time in Test cricket, but he has found fresh impetus and deserves his chance.
Steyn and Morkel were the most potent pair of fast bowlers in Test cricket until recently. Morkel is currently suffering from an overdose of friendly advice and needs to work out his radar problems in the middle. It’s not easy to do that against Australia in a Test match, but he’s good enough and is fortunate to have the consistent Steyn at the other end.
The fact is that Steyn and Morkel hold the key to the success or otherwise of the tour. The batting should look after itself, but beating Australia means taking 20 wickets in a Test match and the quick bowlers have to do the bulk of the work.
If one or both breaks down, the selectors have capable replacements in the squad. Monde Zondeki has played before and is maturing nicely. He lacks one crucial ingredient to succeed at the highest level: confidence. By comparison, Lonwabo Tsotsobe is a strutting peacock of a fellow who would relish the unlikely opportunity to mix it with the big boys.
Tsotsobe’s inclusion is a bold step by the selectors that could prove inspired. He’s a strapping lad who makes up for a lack of extreme pace with steep bounce from a high arm, late swing and, best of all, a southpaw delivery method. If, as seems likely, Ntini’s best days are behind him, Tsotsobe and not Zondeki is the logical replacement. It all adds up to a much better balanced unit than the class of 2005, one that has strength in depth.
The last point of debate is the spin-bowling department. Paul Harris has his hand in plaster, but is expected to be fit for the first Test in Perth. Peterson has been included in case he fails to make the deadline.
It is pointless to bemoan the state of spin bowling in South Africa, for it has been at a low ebb to a greater or lesser degree since Aubrey Faulkner played his final Test in 1924. To conclude the comparison with 2005, Harris is a more parsimonious bowler than Boje, without the latter’s all-round attributes. He belongs to the depressing modern tribe of slow left-armers who bowl over the wicket to right-handers while the captain rests his pacemen and searches his soul for inspiration.
For the sake of the future of the game, let us hope that the quicks do their job so well that Harris becomes an unnecessary luxury.