There is little doubting that South African cricket is on the wane. They might have seen Faf du Plessis trigger a resurgence after they were buried in their own graves in India. They might have won big away series’ in Australia and New Zealand and not to forget thrashed Sri Lanka at home. They might have resolved the lower order conundrum with Temba Bavuma and Quinton de Kock forming a difficult pair to contain. The Lord’s Test might be the only one they have lost since the loss in Adelaide in the day-night encounter against Australia, which was a dead rubber. Yet one performance is all it took for all of South Africa’s familiar woes to resurface.
There was little heart or fight from the side. They lacked in spirit, dropped chances, bowled no-balls and fought back with the ball only to succumb in a worse manner with the bat. The trend is familiar to every South African cricket fan out there. They have witnessed countless Proteas teams do the rites in the very same order in World Cup semi-finals. The only factor missing was at Lord’s was rain, which is strange considering that most of the Champions Trophy matches were disturbed by rainfall.
South Africa’s deplorable show at Lord’s can be attributed to several factors – the absence of two of their most prolific Test players, AB de Villiers and Dale Steyn, the absence of their influential skipper, Faf du Plessis, Elgar’s inexperience at the helm, dropping Joe Root in the first innings and missing the services of Vernon Philander for a large portion of the second innings. Although all of them contributed in one way or the other, their problems do not end there.
A soft middle-order and JP Duminy
There have been several criticisms levied against South Africa for retaining JP Duminy in the Test line-up. A senior player like him is expected to take on more responsibility, especially in the absence of a stalwart like De Villiers. Yet his nearly decade-long career has been hampered by inconsistency and troubles against short-pitch bowling and off-spin.
Duminy is undoubtedly one of the most talented players in the country. When he drives, the bat guides the ball to the fence and the still head and flowing follow-through reek perfectionism. A newbie to cricket can be forgiven if he assumes Duminy as one of the best in the game witnessing his silken cover drives. But Duminy isn’t and unfortunately, he is largely responsible for South Africa’s soft belly.
The middle-order, which once boasted of the likes of Jacques Kallis, AB de Villiers and Ashwell Prince is now looking wobbly. Du Plessis is the glue while Bavuma and De Kock are more often than not at the crease to play a rescue knock. To their credit, they have done a fine job in resurrecting a series of broken innings in the past year. Amla is on the wane and the veteran batsman is no longer seeing balls like a volleyball.
South Africa need to get past their obsession with Duminy and blood youngsters like Theunis de Bruyn and Aiden Markram.
The one-dimensional attack
There is a reason why South Africa turn their attention to Wayne Parnell time and again despite his lack of control over the line and length. The former under-19 skipper is a left-arm seamer and provides a much-needed variation to this Proteas attack. They have a plethora of hit-the-deck bowlers, including Morne Morkel, Kagiso Rabada, Chris Morris and Duanne Olivier. However, they need variety in the attack and Parnell is an X-factor bowler who can bowl unplayable deliveries on his day.
The current attack is largely one-dimensional with Rabada and Morkel eerily similar in their line of attack and pace. Philander offers a change-up but the veteran bowler needs helpful conditions to breakthrough, a trait which will hamper the attack on flat tracks. With Rabada suspended, South Africa would likely go to one of Morris or Olivier, both of whom offer little different to what Morkel already brings to the table. That said, Olivier should get the call considering his impressive show in New Zealand.
The selection panel headed by Linda Zondi has made some fine decisions in the past few months and considering the quota numbers the team has to meet some of the selections are really not in their hands. The suspension of Rabada and dropping Duminy will pose a tough equation for the selectors. They are expected to field four coloured players and two black Africans on an average across formats in a year. The current Test team has Rabada and Bavuma representing the blacks with Duminy, Amla, Keshav Maharaj and Vernon Philander the coloured players.
With Rabada suspended and Duminy’s form under severe scrutiny for quite some time, South Africa will ponder if they can include Olivier and retain De Bruyn while replacing Duminy with the returning skipper, Du Plessis. The equation changes here and with Phehlukwayo, a black player, available in the squad, the discombobulation is not minor.
While transformation guidelines would surely aid South Africa in the future with more hidden gems being unearthed, the process has to take root at grass level before such stringent policies are kept in national level teams.
The final implications
With veteran batsman De Villiers still on a hiatus in Test cricket, South Africa have only one man to look up to, their beloved skipper, Du Plessis. The strong captain has been a huge factor in Proteas' resuscitation after the Indian tour and their ardent fans will hope that the team performs better with him. After all, their best session in the Lord’s game came with Du Plessis was back with the team after his paternity leave. But so did the worst session. The faster they recognise that their problems are deep rooted, the better prepared they would be for Trent Bridge.
The challenge awaiting them at Trent Bridge is two-fold.
1. Overcoming their own deep-rooted problems and fielding the best XI while ensuring that the absence of Rabada would be properly covered is of major importance. They can replace Rabada with one of Morris or Olivier but how effective either of them will be is debatable. The other option is to drop both Duminy and De Bruyn and field both of Morris and Olivier which makes it a four-pronged pace attack and arguably more threatening. But, it would mean that the onus is on their batsmen to do their jobs well with a long tail.
2. Targeting England’s all-rounders is another of South Africa’s worries. They silenced Ben Stokes to an extent at Lord’s but Moeen Ali revelled as did Stuart Broad with his first half-century since 2013. If they do manage to break down England’s top order, it is upto the Proteas to maintain the same intensity for England bat deep.
All said and done, a series that promised to be entertaining and eye-catching has started on a brilliant note with South Africa’s fightback on the fourth day with the ball promising a great contest. However, a fourth innings collapse undid the hard work of their bowlers. Being the kind of travellers they are, expect South Africa to come back with a roar at Trent Bridge although they have quite a few problems to sort out in the background.