Cushioning the gaping, wide hole left by AB de Villiers and the celebrated return of Dale Steyn to the fold are South Africa’s major talking points ahead of a testing Sri Lankan tour. But as Faf du Plessis and his men set foot on the Island Nation, they will know that to go back with a Test series win, they will need to fight it out as a whole team.
Sri Lanka, unlike a few months back, have shown promising signs of clawing their way back as a Test team under Chandika Hathurusinga and it is this that would peg back South Africa’s hopes of being welcomed by a bed of roses.
Here we put together a few questions the team will have to answer before they take on Lanka at Galle on Thursday.
Who owns the no.4 spot?
The absence of de Villiers puts South Africa in a fix. They have often relied on him to form a bridge between the top order and the lower middle-order in Tests, a fact exemplified by his sensational form against India and Australia at home. From counter-attacking to shoring up a top-order collapse, de Villiers was an impermeable brick wall but now that the wall has gone down, South Africa need a barrier, at least a polythene sheet, to resist or charge from the crucial no.4 spot.
Going by evidence from the warm-up game, Temba Bavuma has been tasked with the position left vacant by the superstar but there are other contenders too. Faf du Plessis might ponder about promoting himself up the order or giving Theunis de Bruyn a run at the top where he has batted all his life. Quinton de Kock is another who has excited but his lack of form and wicket-keeping duties will mean he is not in contention to take up duties at 4.
If they do decide to go with Bavuma, South Africa will want to ensure that de Kock’s shoddy form doesn’t affect de Bruyn who might be coming in at 6 (if he plays). They did reasonably well without de Villiers for a year in Tests and there is no reason why this South African team cannot do the same this time around.
The five bowler theory
A major quandary for Ottis Gibson would be whether to go in with five frontline bowlers or an extra batter. Vernon Philander has done enough to warrant a longer run at no.7 but with Quinton de Kock woefully out of form and the batting no longer as stable without de Villiers, it is a mighty huge risk to feed Sri Lanka’s spinners with a long tail.
If they do decide to pull in an extra batter, South Africa might have to go in with just one spinner in the first Test, which could mean a heavy workload for Keshav Maharaj and the seamers. None of their top six batsmen bowls regularly and this virtually means the onus is on each of the four bowlers to step up and do their duties to perfection.
If a fifth bowler is indeed picked, it gives du Plessis several options to play around with and could also pave way for Tabraiz Shamsi who did particularly well in the warm-up game. But batting-wise South Africa had a few problems against India at home and without de Villiers the magnitude of the problems multiply. A risky move to play five bowlers, but worth a punt?
Do they bench Dale Steyn?
Arguably the greatest fast bowler in the 20th century, Dale Steyn is in danger of being benched for an extra spinner at Galle despite his grit and toil to make a comeback. The South African seamer clocked several overs in county cricket before he was picked for the Sri Lankan tour but his history of injuries puts South Africa in a tricky situation.
If they do play Steyn, they might be forced to go in with five bowlers to cover up for any injury during the Test match. This puts extra onus on their batting line-up and given their issues against spin, that seems too dangerous a move. The other option is to go in with Steyn and three other bowlers which could mean leaving out Ngidi or an additional spinner. With surfaces expected to take turn, this puts the Proteas at a disadvantage they cannot probably afford in a two-match series.
Klaasen or de Kock?
While it might be too harsh to even ask if Quinton de Kock has to be dropped from the Test side, the need for a well-balanced outfit could mean South Africa might be forced to pick Heinrich Klaasen ahead of de Kock. They are more likely to field five bowlers for the first Test and ensuring that they have a strong top six is quintessential.
Heinrich Klaasen’s abilities against spin makes him an enticing option on these wickets in the middle-order even without his keeping. de Kock has his own share of problems against spin and this could force the Proteas to bench him in favour of Klaasen. The debatable decision, but a bold one nevertheless if they do go for it.