Proteas are gunning for a series whitewash

Although the Proteas are 2-0 up courtesy of their four menacing fast bowlers, they still have some searching questions to answer about their fragile batting.

The South Africa versus Pakistan Test series — a summer of fast bowlers and fast-forward matches — culminates at The Wanderers Stadium in Johannesburg on 11 January.

The Proteas’ nine-wicket victory at Newlands in Cape Town ensured their fifth straight home series win under coach Ottis Gibson. But captain Faf du Plessis, who is suspended for the Test at the Bullring because of his team maintaining a slow overs rate in Cape Town, stressed that his side will not tinker too much with its team selection in their search for a 3-0 series whitewash.

However, Du Plessis’s exclusion (Dean Elgar will captain the team) will allow the national selectors to make experimental tweaks to a batting line-up that has been dogged in its support of an irresistible South African pace attack.

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The South Africans have drafted Cape Cobras batsman Pieter Malan into their Test squad but it is likely that his provincial team-mate, Zubayr Hamza, will benefit from the batting order vacancy to make his debut. If so, the 23-year-old Hamza will become the country’s 100th post-apartheid Test cap.

Hamza has had a relatively lean start to the 2018-19 domestic season, with three half-centuries so far. But his average over the past two years remains just over 49.

Wickets in this series have sometimes fallen faster than a sun-soaked, beer-addled lout’s underpants at the urinals — causing matches to appear to be on fast-forward. The Boxing Day Test match in Centurion ended in three days, the New Year’s Day Test Match at Newlands just scraped into the morning of the fourth day.

Tests of Test cricket

Collapses have been commonplace, with Pakistan teetering at 54-5 within a mere 20 overs during the first morning at Newlands a prime example.

But, the “tests” of Test cricket, the discipline and deliberation that elevates this format of the game above the instant gratification of its limited overs siblings remain evident. The requirement of application and nous, a player’s ability to read a game in the moment and respond accordingly over long periods, the duels with opponents and the elements, have ensured that the stadiums, packed daily in Cape Town and healthily during Centurion’s hosting of its first Boxing Day match, have witnessed memorable Test cricket.

This was perhaps clearest during the second day of play at Newlands, in the haze and heat that shrouds Table Mountain and ensures sweat evaporates off the body as soon it emerges from the pores, staying marginally longer on the skin than a Pakistani batsman at the crease.

The morning sessions made for precarious batting. The wicket had demons. Violence could be incited off the pitch — clearly evident in the delivery from Mohammad Abbas, which removed Hashim Amla, who was unable to add to his overnight score of 24.

The ball pitched outside off stump but sent Amla’s leg-stump careering out of the ground. Amla looked back, dazed, confused, as if staring at an unsolvable mathematics problem.

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The message from the pitch was unavoidable: to score runs, batsmen had to survive the morning session, then attack in the second half of the middle session into the third session after tea, as bowlers wearied, the ball lost its shine and the pitch baked under the unforgiving sun.

The simple, basic tenets of cricket. Approaches lost in the hurly-burly of limited overs matches. But assiduously subscribed to by Du Plessis (103 off 226 balls) and Temba Bavuma (75 off 162 balls) as they batted at around three runs an over for most of that day.

Bavuma has been at his gritty, deliberate best during this Test series and will be looking to claim a century in the final match, especially if he is moved up the order to allow Hamza to play his way into Test cricket lower down the order. Despite his inability to convert solid starts into centuries, 28-year-old Bavuma has looked to be one of the Proteas’ most accomplished batsmen going back as far as his half-century against Sri Lanka in Colombo in July last year.

The Proteas’ batting has been solid in the series: Elgar’s determination, Du Plessis’s century, Amla’s reflexes, Quinton de Kock’s insouciance and Bavuma’s application are all cause for optimism. But it is the pace attack that have really carried this team to victory with a combination of unerring line and length, vicious short balls, bursts of bowling pressure on run rates and batsmen’s consideration of their off stump laying the foundation of this series victory.

It is something that Gibson was unapologetic about during a recent press conference:

“That’s what I was raised up on. If you have four fast bowlers of the quality we have here, then it would be silly not to use them. The skill, the fitness levels. The way they kept coming in. And they’re all very different. Duanne [Olivier] is fast and aggressive, Dale Steyn is highly skilled, Vernon Philander is very accurate and [Kagiso] Rabada does a bit of everything. So there’s a lot of variety in it as well,” he said.

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