CRACKS IN ARMOUR
Hamilton indication of South Africa finding their level
Tristan Holme • Last updated on Tue, 28 Mar, 2017, 02:43 PM
Tuesday was the third time in four innings that South Africa have lost their first five wickets with less than 150. © AFP
It was around 6.30am on Tuesday (March 28) that South African cricket fans started doing the rain dance. The moves of this dance have become familiar to them over the past two years as the country has grappled with a debilitating drought, but this time motives are a little different. The Proteas, going into the last day of their Test series against New Zealand, could do with a few downpours in Hamilton to stave off a late-summer wilt.
The forecast for the fifth day of the third Test suggests that they may indeed receive some help from mother nature, but then weather predictions in New Zealand should not be taken as gospel. “The iPhone app had 100% thunderstorms all afternoon and we didn’t get any,” Jeetan Patel noted after day four.
Regardless of what happens on Wednesday, the events of the past few days in Hamilton should be taken to heart by South Africa, given the extent to which they have been outplayed by an opponent with some striking limitations. Granted New Zealand have been lifted by the magnificence of Kane Williamson, but the fact that he has proven himself to be the best player on either side at the moment confirms that this is a South African team lacking its usual star quality.
Since the two teams met in South Africa last August, the Proteas have had an excellent summer in both Tests and One-Day Internationals, with the Test series win in Australia the obvious highlight. But their overall performance in New Zealand is now beginning to show some cracks in their amour, and suggest that their previous opponents might have flattered them a little.
Tuesday was the third time in four innings that South Africa have lost their first five wickets with less than 150 on the board, and on two of those occasions their score was less than 80. All of that despite the absence of Trent Boult in both Tests, and Tim Southee in this one.
“We haven’t had good starts,” admitted assistant coach Adrian Birrell. “In New Zealand it has shown that the new ball is quite tricky. Once the ball gets old, it gets easier to bat. We haven’t had good starts and on the back of that we have struggled. But we also take great heart that we’ve been able to get decent totals by guys in the middle order really putting fantastic performances together.”
Quinton de Kock has come to the rescue twice, but it remains to be seen whether this second-innings collapse in Hamilton is one firefight too far for an overworked wicketkeeper-batsman with dodgy fingers who is understandably looking a little ragged. He has now been intricately involved in 214 of the 290 overs of this match, which has come at the end of a long summer in which he has played 28 international matches – 11 of them Tests.
Birrell’s observations about New Zealand conditions will also apply in England, leaving South Africa with some difficult questions to face ahead of that tour in July. The only defence the selectors might be able to offer for dropping Stephen Cook in Hamilton and replacing him with a debutant who is not an opening batsman could be that it is a one-off call for the final Test of the summer. Theunis de Bruyn is too promising a talent to waste by pushing him into uncomfortable positions – as was done with Stiaan van Zyl.
De Bruyn’s future also relates to JP Duminy, who has not turned a corner after all. On the back of his 155 against Sri Lanka at the Wanderers, Duminy made the case that his poor career average, which has forever been stuck in the low 30s, was due to “opportunities”, and that batting at No. 4 was allowing him to show his true colours. The 32-year-old has had some good moments this summer – his 141 at Perth the most notable – but an average of 36.80 from 11 Tests since August shows his inconsistency.
Notably, that is not the record of a No. 4 batsman in a team with ambitions of challenging for the No. 1 Test ranking. And that is really the point here – that while South Africa have shown an impressive group collective under Faf du Plessis’s leadership, without the star quality of AB de Villiers and Dale Steyn they are likely to find that step up to the highest level is beyond them.
De Villiers will not return to the Test side at least until the end of the year, while the days of Steyn producing lightning-quick spells to knock sides over on flat wickets are sadly over, given his age and the extent of his recent injuries. It was that sort of spell that South Africa were lacking as New Zealand batted for 162 overs in Hamilton over the past two days.
Meanwhile, Hashim Amla undoubtedly still has some big innings left in him, but his record suggests that his days of uber-consistency may be over as well. His average over the last two years is 36, while this summer he averaged 33 from 11 Tests with just one century.
That is not to say that this is a side in crisis. Kagiso Rabada is already an outstanding fast bowler and will only get better, Dean Elgar has bedded in, du Plessis looks like a captain who should have been appointed three years ago, and de Kock will surely be the finest wicketkeeper-batsman of his generation. South Africa started the summer in seventh place, and have reassembled their team even as they have returned to the top three.
But their performance in Hamilton suggests that they might just be finding their level.