The embarrassment of riches in their fast bowling department has often created a selection muddle in the South African ranks. But in Centurion, it helped them to tide over an injury crisis when two of their frontline pacemen Vernon Philander and Lungi Ngidi were ruled out of the Boxing Day Test against Pakistan. Seasoned campaigner Philander and Proteas' rising stars, Ngidi’s absence meant, Duanne Olivier – waiting in the sidelines – had an opportunity to make it count. And the 26-year-old from Bloemfontein mentored by Allan Donald was on fire claiming 11 wickets to rock the brittle Pakistan batting line-up.
Kagiso Rabada, the world’s leading bowler, in the ICC Test rankings, also justified his top billing with some telling blows. Dale Steyn managed to overhaul Shaun Pollock’s record as the leading South African wicket taker but looked the least menacing. Over the years, from Donald to Pollock and then Makhaya Ntini and Steyn, South Africa have banked on their lethal fast bowlers to torment the visiting sides. None of the Asian teams have ever won a series in South Africa. Once again despite an insipid batting display in the first innings, it was the Proteas bowling firepower that tilted the scales in favour of the home side. Such has been the fast bowling treasures in the South African cupboard, the exit of Morne Morkel and the prolonged absence of Steyn due to a plethora of injuries were hardly felt.
The South African bowlers, especially Olivier, exploited the weakness of the Pakistan batsmen to play the short ball. One of the mainstays of Pakistan batting, Azhar Ali too perished in the second innings trying to pull a short ball from Olivier. Rabada also proved too hot to handle with his incisive line and length coupled with his raw pace. The dismissal of Babar Azam in the second innings where the in-form batsman was beaten by the sheer pace demonstrated why Rabada is hailed as one of the deadliest fast bowlers in the game today. Efforts from Rabada and Olivier helped the home side get over the line despite a dismal batting performance in the first innings.
The script was similar during the 2013 tour of South Africa by Pakistan where even the presence of Misbah ul Haq and Younis Khan could not prevent a 3-0 drubbing with the pacers doing most of the damage. Steyn and Philander were Pakistan’s nemesis while in the third Test, an unheralded Kyle Abbott brought about their downfall bagging 9 wickets.
Chasing a modest 149 in Centurion in the first Test, South Africa had a tense start losing Aiden Makram in the first over. But Hashim Amla and Dean Elgar weathered through the choppy waters with fighting fifties and a bit of luck on their side as well. Amla, under scrutiny for a prolonged run drought, was dropped by Fakhar Zaman early in the innings.Elgar earned a lucky reprieve when his catch which was given 'Out' by the on-field umpires and looked clean on television replays was overturned by the TV umpire Joel Wilson.
The 35-year-old Amla came into this Test match having scored just 439 runs at an average of 24.38 in nine Test matches. His form was so scratchy that he was even dumped by his franchise side Durban Heat in the South Africa’s T20 League. His dismissal for just eight runs in the first innings added to the pressure on the normally unflappable Amla. With Zubayr Hamza, a prolific scorer in South Africa’s domestic season waiting in the wings, the calls to drop Amla were growing shriller. South Africa will be hoping that Amla’s half century in the second innings will help him regain his form.
Elgar bravely held fort against the line of fire repeatedly taking blows on his body. It was reminiscent of his doughty knock in Wanderers earlier this year against India on a more venomous track, where he had carried his bat for an unbeaten 86, but ran out of partners as South Africa suffered a defeat. However, against Pakistan, his fifty came at a good time for the left hander as he had endured a wretched run in the last series in Sri Lanka where his returns were 8, 4, 0 and 37. Elgar’s role has become critical because of his opening partner – Markram – has been struggling with form too. After two hundreds in the series against Australia earlier in 2018, Markram found the going tough in Sri Lanka and extended his lean patch in Centurion.
Heading to Newlands for the second Test, skipper Faf du Plessis will also be feeling the heat after bagging a pair in the opening Test. Despite stirring series wins over India and Australia as a captain, 2018 has not been a very fruitful year with the bat for Du Plessis.
Despite an unimpressive batting display in the first Test, the South African selectors are unlikely to ring in any changes in this department which means Hamza, who is part of the squad, will have to bide his time to earn his maiden Test cap.
With Du Plessis hinting at Philander reclaiming his place in the playing XI, it will be interesting to see how the think tank will accommodate the hero of the Centurion triumph – Olivier – for the second Test. Whatever be the combination, a trial by fire awaits Pakistan batsmen in Cape Town against a formidable pace battery.