Proteas: Enoch faces early brain-teaser

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Cape Town – It
makes things difficult enough that South Africa will play their first three
matches of the ICC World Test Championship at Indian venues where they have
never previously played the format.

But new,
interim team director (effectively also head coach) Enoch Nkwe faces another
major head-scratcher over the next few weeks as he begins contemplating the
complex matter of team balance for his Proteas charges in the contests at,
respectively, Visakhapatnam, Ranchi and Pune.

Although
preceded by a short Twenty20 international series, which will have little
impact as a pointer to the environment facing the national side in the more
crucial matter of the Tests, how correctly Nkwe and his closest confidantes structure
the XI could be pivotal to the competitiveness levels of the reasonably heavy
underdogs.

We already
know – through confirmation earlier this week of the 15-strong Test party –
that the Proteas will be putting out one of their least streetwise teams yet,
regardless of specific composition, in terms of its familiarity to Indian
multi-day conditions … a situation aggravated by the recent retirements in
quick succession of true legends Dale Steyn and Hashim Amla.

So if the
tourists are to have any chance of either upsetting or at least significantly
troubling their heavyweight hosts, they will need every possible duck in a
smart row, related to the balance between their batting and bowling needs.

Unlike a
team like England, sporting a genuine all-rounder within their top six in the
shape of Ben Stokes (or even the less fancied Bangladesh with their priceless asset
of Shakib Al Hasan), South Africa are among those having to weigh up, often on
a match-by-match basis, how to ensure beefy enough resources in each department
without compromising one too noticeably to the detriment of the other.

Early hunch:
Nkwe and company will be so mindful of the Proteas’ stark failings at the
crease – even with a more experienced batting arsenal then – in the
enormously painful last series in India during 2015, that the temptation will
be overwhelming to “load” the batting.

That would
translate into having wicketkeeper Quinton de Kock deployed at more customary
No 7 rather than one berth higher where he has sometimes operated – though with
noticeably leaner success, mind – before.

While it
will be a surprise if Faf du Plessis’s troops encounter the same, controversial
and violently turning conditions that faced them in the 0-3 outcome in 2015
(for one thing, India trust their lively pace attack much more these days),
they struggled woefully for decent totals then, despite the presence of proven
gladiators Amla and AB de Villiers – now both out of the picture, in a frankly scary
development.

At least to
begin the series with, the Proteas may well be inclined to play all of their
designated batsmen in the party, meaning a top seven comprising Messrs Markram,
Elgar, De Bruyn, Du Plessis, Bavuma, Hamza and De Kock, albeit not necessarily
in that exact order.

The only
accomplished extra batting figure twiddling his thumbs, then, would be hitherto
uncapped Rudi Second, although he also serves as the back-up gloveman on tour
to De Kock.

That would
leave space for just four bowling specialists, and in India that so often means
a maximum of two seamers (Kagiso Rabada and Vernon Philander the favourites, if
so?) and a need for a minimum of two spinners (likeliest to be left-armer
Keshav Maharaj and off-spinner Dane Piedt).

The Proteas
could then aim to coax some additional overs at times from part-time tweakers
Dean Elgar and Aiden Markram, plus the steady enough occasional medium-pace fare
of Theunis de Bruyn.

Where things
might get more interesting, team balance-wise, is if history looks ominously
like repeating itself, with serious dustbowls in prospect.

Under such
circumstances, the visitors fielding all three main spinners (Maharaj, Piedt
and new cap Senuran Muthusamy) becomes a slightly higher-likelihood scenario.

Dolphins
player Muthusamy, 25, is a properly credible first-class all-rounder, given that
his left-arm spin stats (128 scalps at 27.68) are backed up by a batting
average of 33.41 and seven centuries.

That is,
potentially, enough ammunition to suggest that the rookie left-hander, and the
often enough resilient, more seasoned figure Philander, could share duties as
all-rounders in berths seven and eight, simultaneously allowing for the comfort
of a five-strong frontline attack.

But that
also means chopping an out-and-out batsman.

Just how
loudly (if at all?) Nkwe goes “ouch” at that thought, for another Indian-hosted
series, may determine which way the Proteas go structurally in a few weeks’
time at the fairly mystery-laden Visakhapatnam …

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter:
@RobHouwing





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