Only four of South Africa’s likely starting XI for the third and final Test of the series in New Zealand, starting on Saturday, will have their minds on the Indian Premier League that starts less than a week after their return home. Not long ago, that number would have been nine or 10. It is a considerable relief that the majority of players will be focused solely on winning the series.
And it’s equally understandable that Hashim Amla, Faf du Plessis, Quinton de Kock and Kagiso Rabada will have their minds partly preoccupied with the two-day turnaround at home before they leave for India and a two-month jamboree of travel, late nights, early starts and endless hype.
For the same four, and seven or eight others, the turnaround after the IPL and before the Proteas’ tour of England and the Champions Trophy will also be two or three days.
It is a relentless schedule and one that most cricketers fear to leave lest their place on the hamster wheel is taken by someone else. Yet two have done just that — Morné Morkel and JP Duminy, foregoing millions of rands in favour of common sense.
The luxurious collection of six fast bowlers on tour in New Zealand has now been whittled down to four, with early returns home for Chris Morris and Duanne Olivier. This means the successful trio from the first two Tests — Vernon Philander, Rabada and Morkel — will line up again at Seddon Park in Hamilton on Saturday, unless they’re injured.
Wayne Parnell’s possible inclusion as a fourth seamer is highly unlikely on one of the country’s most spin-friendly surfaces. Even Cobras off-spinning captain Dane Piedt seems unlikely to make the starting XI, despite flying 12 000km to get there.
Some might be tempted to give Theunis de Bruyn a debut at the top of the order, but Stephen Cook and Dean Elgar have already been marked down as the opening pair for the England tour in July and will be kept together. Both have even secured short-term contracts in county cricket in June to help them adjust to conditions there. (It remains a mystery just how willing the English counties are to place their own interests above those of the national team.)
Apart from Cook’s scratchy showing in the first few Tests, Temba Bavuma and especially Duminy remain popular topics of barroom selection discussions. Bavuma averages 32.76 after 19 Test matches and Duminy 34.22 after 44 Tests. For some people, those numbers are quite sufficient to prove their inadequacy in the toughest format. And both players wish their averages were higher.
Every honest batsman in the world will admit to an “awareness” of statistics as they make their way up the professional ladder. Despite its inadequacies and shallowness as a tool of measurement, a batsman’s average determines more than anything else how he is judged. They would also admit that, unless you are a genius, you need a selfish streak to “look after” your average.
Bavuma offered a glimpse of what makes him tick in just his second Test, with South Africa in a spot of bother at 136-3 against Bangladesh in Dhaka two years ago. Wickets fell quickly at the other end but he counterattacked until he was last man out for a top score of 54 in a total of 248. He volunteered to open the batting in a “dead” fourth Test in India and has been dismissed cheaply four times in pursuit of quick-declaration runs. Not the actions of a selfish man.
Since then, he played a lead role in the Test series win in Australia and came to the rescue in equally spectacular fashion against New Zealand in Wellington last week.
In Perth, the Proteas were 32-4 inside the first hour of the series before he scored 56 to resurrect the innings. In the second Test in Hobart, the innings was faltering at 76-4 when he made 76. His partner in both rescue acts was Lions teammate and friend De Kock. The Proteas won the series.
Against Sri Lanka, when it could be argued his runs weren’t needed with South Africa rampantly dominant, he had a horror run of 3, 8, 10, 0 and 0. In Dunedin and Wellington, trouble raised its head once again at 148-4 and 79-5. He scored 64 in the first Test and 89 in a stand of 160 with De Kock as the Basin Reserve Test was won in three days. It is not hard to see why the captain and the coach regard him as a man with a temperament in direct inverse proportion to his physical stature.
Duminy has been under even more intense scrutiny but, once again, there are solid reasons for maintaining faith in him — whether you agree with them or not.
Chief among them is that, since being given the opportunity to fill AB de Villiers’s place at number four in the batting order, he has averaged 46.8. This started with 88 against New Zealand at Centurion and included a breathtaking second-innings 141 against Australia in a stand of 250 with Elgar in Perth, which set up victory, and another 155 against Sri Lanka at the Wanderers.
Both men are capable of turning a match with a catch or a runout and there is, of course, also Duminy’s bowling to consider. Bavuma still bowls at warm-ups and nets every day and is determined that his bowling, too, will one day be considered as a useful part-time option.
Duminy, like Morné Morkel, has withdrawn from the IPL this year not just because they want to spend more time with their wives and young children, but also because they acknowledge the importance of staying physically fit and mentally fresh when their primary goal is playing for their country.
That, too, goes a long way towards influencing national selection in the post-Kyle Abbott and Rilee Rossouw Kolpak era.
Rain is forecast in varying amounts for all five days of this Test match, which may further add to the distractions of the imminent IPL. There may well be some wonderful and competitive cricket over the five days but, with New Zealand’s squad containing half a dozen players with IPL contracts, it could be a damp squib in more ways than one.