Having themselves struggled in the absence of some of their top bowlers in the previous season, South Africa will know the difference the return of Starc and Hazlewood could make for Australia © Associated Press
South Africa have left for Australia with two rookie spinners in their squad, but Tabraiz Shamsi and Keshav Maharaj could end up being tourists on the three-Test tour. With five specialist seamers to choose from, and JP Duminy’s offspin, South Africa have plenty of other options, and an all-pace attack is not out of the question, especially in the first and third Tests.
“The big decision will be whether to play four seamers or [three seamers and] a spinner,” Russell Domingo, South Africa’s coach, said. “We will have to assess how guys go in the warm-up games, what type of spinner we are looking for in those conditions, if we do play a spinner, and what the best four seamers will be in those conditions, if we play four seamers.”
Although the WACA is not the pacemen’s paradise it once was, and South Africa will be wary not to repeat what they did in anticipation of a green mamba in Brisbane in 2012 when they picked four quicks and Duminy (who then got injured), it remains an option to give all of Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander, Kagiso Rabada and fit-again Morne Morkel a go, especially as it will be a rare opportunity for them to play together. Morkel sat out the New Zealand Tests with a back injury, but confirmed his return to fitness by turning out for the Titans against the Warriors last week. But with the new transformation targets, the return of Steyn and Philander, and the emergence of Rabada, he may not get into the team unless South Africa play four quicks. And that means Kyle Abbott will be lucky to be considered at all.
The other venue where South Africa will consider an all-pace attack is Adelaide because that is where they play their first day-night Test. On the evidence of last summer’s match between Australia and New Zealand, and what Domingo saw of the ongoing Pakistan-West Indies match, he expects the fixture to be headlined by bowlers. “It definitely looked like it was swinging quite a bit in Dubai,” he said – South Africa’s departure press conference was done before legspinner Devendra Bishoo set about dismantling Pakistan.
The feedback Domingo received from members of South Africa’s A squad, which included opening batsmen Stephen Cook and Dean Elgar and Temba Bavuma, who used the pink ball during their unofficial Test series in Australia in August, also suggested there is an advantage for bowlers.
“A lot of our players played with the pink ball on the South Africa A tour, and they have given us feedback. I don’t know if it’s going to last five days. I think they’ve got to leave some grass on the wicket because the pink ball has got a history of scuffing up, so they try and prolong the quality of the pink ball while leaving some grass on the wicket. We’ve also heard that it is very tough to bat under lights and the ball does nip around,” Domingo said. “I don’t know how many pink-ball Tests there are going to be, but I know most of the players are really excited by it, especially the bowlers. The bowlers are licking their lips. The batters might not be that excited, but the bowlers are looking forward to it.”
South Africa have ample opportunity to see if the bowlers will benefit as much as has been hinted at in their warm-up matches. Their first practice game will take place under lights in Adelaide and they have a second in Melbourne ahead of the third Test. As an added bonus, they also have another two-day games ahead of the first Test to prepare themselves thoroughly.
Among the things South will concentrate on in the regular red-ball game is which of their spinners to play, if they are to pick one. They have already noted that Australia struggled to pick Shamsi in the ODIs and may want his surprise factor. However, Maharaj is hot off a 13-wicket haul in the opening domestic first-class match of the season. South Africa have dispensed with the idea of an offspinner, given “Australia, generally, hasn’t been a happy hunting ground for offspinners”, according to Domingo. “The Australian line-up does have a lot of right-handers – Steven Smith, Joe Burns, Adam Voges, Peter Neville, so quite a lot.” And if South Africa want someone to turn the ball away from the left-handers, Duminy, who has made public his desire to contribute more with the ball, will be looked at.
The spotlight on their own attack does not mean South Africa have forgotten about the opposition’s. Australia’s young seamers were the focus of the recently-completed ODI series, where they failed to trouble South Africa’s line-up and did not manage to bowl them out once. But they will be replaced by the big guns in the Tests. Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood will be back, and du Plessis indicated South Africa are ready for the challenge.
“Starc is a huge bowler for them, but, statistically, he has been more an asset in one-day cricket than in the Test team. There will just be a little bit of preparation for us with left-arm quick again,” du Plessis said. “He is one of those guys who can crank it up and get it close to 150 and also reverse swing. Josh Hazlewood is a pretty standard bowler, he just hits good lengths all day, similar to someone like Dale and Vern.”
South Africa know the difference players of the quality of Steyn and Philander can make to the team, after struggling through most of the previous summer without them, and so will know how much Starc and Hazlewood will buoy Australia. And, so, they also know how much they will have to do to get the better of Australia in their backyard.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo’s South Africa correspondent
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Source: ESPN Crickinfo