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South Africa need to play a new brand of Test cricket

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South_Africa_Test_CricketIn the aftermath of yet another ICC event debacle, South Africa return to their favourite format, Test cricket, and take on England in a high profile four-match series starting in the 1st week of July. The Proteas have emerged a revamped unit under a charismatic skipper, Faf du Plessis, who might be away on daddy duties when the first Test is played out at Lord's.

Since Faf took over the reins from AB de Villiers, the South African Test side has been ruthless, winning 7 out of 11 Tests and losing just one. They have had away series victories over Australia and New Zealand and a drubbing of Sri Lanka at home in the past year.

The batting, without AB de Villiers, has shown impeccable character and the bowling, devoid of Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel, has been admirably led by Kagiso Rabada. While all signs point towards an onerous task for England, South Africa have quite a few holes to plug before they can dominate Test cricket again.

The results have gone in their favour, they have beat strong units away from home, they have won big bilateral series. And yet when it really matters, the Proteas do not pack a punch. That is the problem with South African cricket. Even when they win games at will, they rarely dominate or intimidate opposition, something that world-beating sides do.

With the ICC Champions Trophy exit setting the tone, now is a good time for the Proteas to play a different brand of cricket and become a ruthless unit. Beating England in England is no easy task, but the Proteas have taken adversity in their stride in Tests. Under du Plessis, the team has developed into one which did not need the stardom of AB de Villiers or the banana swing of Dale Steyn. The Linda Zondi-led selection panel has also made some fine decisions and brought the right personnel into the Test side.

However, against popular belief, South Africa just might not be ready to win a Test Championship yet, as and when it goes on floor. Like the ODI World Cup or Champions Trophy, the Test Championship tests a team in all conditions, against every opposition; and as every true Protea fan will know by now, the team has a long way to go win one.

 

If they need a radical change in their approach to cricket tournaments and BIG cricket matches in general, that trend has to begin in the format they thrive in, Tests, before it seeps into ODIs and T20s. It needn't be stressed that the change has to come from not only the players but also the management and selectors.

To express themselves on the field is one thing but to play with a positive frame of mind and then stamp their authority in the game is a totally different thing.

The first step in that direction has to come from the selectors. Let us take the example of Stephen Cook and Theunis de Bruyn. Cook, a stable Test opener with tons of runs in domestic First-class cricket, has made an impact since making it into the side at the age of 33. He has been dour, scrappy, edgy and steady at the same time, a reflection of how he has played the game at First-class level. But his tendency to fiddle with balls outside the off-stump, hanging out his bat without purpose, led to him being dropped during the New Zealand series.

Theunis de Bruyn, another talented batsman, young and flamboyant, steady and in form, was called up into the squad and asked to open the innings, a huge mistake which the Proteas aren't committing for the first time. That he came a cropper against some good bowling by the Black Caps is no surprise considering that he is a middle order batsman.

There are two lessons for the Proteas to learn from this debacle.

1) Cook might be a steady, experienced cricketer, but his kind of batting isn't going to inspire them to the brand of cricket the team should be playing. That is not to say that the Proteas need Sehwag-like batsmen. What they need are positive cricketers who know to make that step up when the team demands. Amla is a good example in this regard.

While being the most composed and calm cricketer in the side, Amla knows when to mark his presence in the game and weather opposition out. That is the kind of quality South Africa need. A breath of fresh air is urgently required at the top alongside Dean Elgar. Aiden Markram, their former Under-19 skipper who led the Under-19 team to a World Cup win, is ripe for trial and should be in the squad to face England.

2) Theunis de Bruyn has been excellent in the domestic circuit and deserves a go in the side. While Duminy showed impeccable character and grit in the absence of AB de Villiers, he has been far too inconsistent in his more than a decade long career to be part of a team on the course for greatness. De Bruyn's time has come and South Africa should invest in him. Temba Bavuma, who, despite his shortcomings, has shown exemplary skills in adversity, should be persisted with.

The bowling front

The bowling unit was exceptional in the past year, but with Kyle Abbott lost to Kolpak and Dale Steyn still out injured, Rabada has too much of a load on his shoulders. While Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander are still around, South Africa need a steady source of back-up seamers.

Wayne Parnell offers a left-arm variation and has the potential to be a world-class seamer. But the fact is that he has not grabbed whatever opportunity has come his way. A player faltering in big matches is not someone South Africa want to groom at this stage. Duanne Olivier, who was impressive in his debut, Chris Morris and Dane Paterson, both of whom offer something with the bat in addition to an X-Factor with the ball, would be good additions to the present squad.

Keshav Maharaj has been mighty impressive in his short career thus far and looks like the kind of spinner the South African seamers would relish bowling alongside. That said, it is always good to have a wrist spinner in the Test side and Tabraiz Shamsi should be in the reserve for his chinaman variety. Dane Piedt has had a rough few months and though he was picked over Shamsi in the last series, Shamsi offers a match-winning quality that not many spinners provide.

South Africa sorely need a change in approach and the England Test series is the right time to begin the renaissance. The rebuilding to the ODI World Cup in 2019 has to start from the Tests. While this might sound absurd for any other side, South Africa's issues are more in terms of attitude to big games than in personnel or format, and it is apt that they start the change in the format they are comfortable in.

 

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