Liam Brickhill in Cape Town
They are 1-0 up but, ahead of the second Test at Newlands, South Africa have quite a conundrum to figure out: how to fit three world-class seamers into their attack along with the in-form Duanne Olivier. Kagiso Rabada, Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander are all undroppable, but there are only so many spaces going.
Philander’s record makes his the first name on the teamsheet at Newlands, while Olivier’s wrecking-ball act at Centurion was so convincing that Faf du Plessis confirmed the day before the Test that he would definitely play. Unless South Africa opt for a four-pronged pace attack, someone will have to sit out and, on current form, it could be Steyn.
Steyn ascended to the top of South Africa’s Test wicket-taking list on the first morning at Centurion, but he was taken apart by Babar Azam in a later spell and picked up only three wickets during the game. In patches, he didn’t quite hit his usual straps, and South Africa will want him as fresh as possible for the World Cup – admittedly still five months away.
“We’re still talking about what we need to do,” du Plessis said on the eve of the second Test. “Historically, Newlands is a ground where it spins a bit. So it’s just about finding that balance. For us, it’s always tricky trying to find out what that is. There’s a few combinations: whether it’s the extra seamer, whether it’s a spinner or whether it’s playing a batsman less, it is something we speak about quite regularly.
“I just like the fact that there’s a bit of variety in our attack. [Olivier] is a fit guy, he can bowl long spells, and you like to have that in your armoury. Then you’ve got the skill of Vernon, Dale, KG – not that they don’t have pace, but he’s just different. He runs at you, he’s around your head most of the time, and that’s not comfortable for anyone.”
South Africa seem a little uncertain at how the pitch will play, which doesn’t help them solve their conundrum. Newlands curator Evan Flint said the excessive bounce that was a factor at Centurion will not be seen here, but there will be pace on offer. On days four and five there will be turn, which could benefit spinners on both sides.
“We’ve been talking about the pitch already,” Rabada said. “It looks a little dull in a way, in that it might just be five days here. We were joking with Evan about it. But you never know with cricket pitches. Who knows what will happen. It still looks a good wicket. Newlands is always a good wicket, and whenever I’ve come here there’s always been a fair contest between bat and ball.”
Du Plessis added: “It looks pretty similar to what we’ve seen here before. A little bit of grass, but also some patches there. If there’s wind, it does possibly play into the role of a spinner. We may possibly wait and see tomorrow what it looks like when we get to the ground.”
Had Lungi Ngidi been fit, the conundrum would be even more complex. So plentiful are South Africa’s pace options that Dane Paterson, who has taken 30 wickets in five first-class matches this season, hasn’t really been part of the conversation despite coming in to the squad as injury cover before the first Test.
Behind him, Anrich Nortje also started the domestic season with a bang, topping Warriors’ bowling table with 24 wickets at 21.04, and impressed so quickly in three Mzansi Super League outings that he picked up an IPL deal with Kolkata Knight Riders despite being sidelined with an ankle injury. The MSL also unearthed some other gems, and seamer Lutho Sipamla – who needs four more wickets to reach 50 first-class scalps well before his 21st birthday – could also find himself in the reckoning in the near future.
“I don’t like to get involved in team selection and all that, it’s not my place, but yeah, it’s a bit of a headache now, with people talking about whether Vern’s going to come back and Duanne’s going to sit out,” Rabada said. “But it’s a good headache to have.” He also said “there have been talks” of possibly going in to the match with four seamers and looking to end the game before spin becomes too much of a factor.
The quality of South Africa’s options is not in question, but getting the combination right is key. “For us, it’s more about balance than anything else,” du Plessis said. “It’s not about playing a spinner or anything else, it’s what we feel is our most balanced team.”