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South Africa's opening conundrum

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South_Africa_opening_batting_Test_CricketThere are few Test series that grab the attention of neutrals the same way that the recent encounter between India and Australia did, or the one that England and South Africa promises to do.

Surely I am not alone in marking the England-South Africa Test series in red on my calendar. Admittedly I am a diehard Proteas fan, and have snagged myself some tickets for the third Test at The Oval, but even for those who are neither Pommie nor Saffa, this 4 match jamboree has plenty to get excited about.

England triumphed down south the last time these two teams played in a memorable battle. In the drawn second Test, Ben Stokes battered a record breaking 258 from 198 balls as he and Jonny Bairstow cemented a belligerent partnership in the middle order.

In the same Test, Temba Bavuma became the first black South African to score a Test century in a gutsy unbeaten knock of 102.

At Johannesburg, in the cauldron that is the Bull Ring, Stuart Broad ripped through the South African side in a mesmerising display of seam bowling to finish with 6-17 as the hosts crumbled to 83 all out. The series was won in that third Test and South African cricket fans have been dreaming of redemption and revenge ever since.

The Proteas are a different outfit now. Under the bolshie leadership of Faf du Plessis, South Africa have won consecutive series against New Zealand (1-0 victories both home and away), Sri Lanka (3-0 at home) and Australia (2-1 away) since that reverse against the English. They look a more complete and assured side with Keshav Maharaj offering a real attacking spin threat and Quinton de Kock establishing himself as one of the greats of the modern game.

With ball in hand, the South Africans look capable of taking 20 wickets against any opposition. Although some senior batsmen have struggled with consistent form, the batting unit is still packed with runs.

One area of debate has centred on who should open with Dean Elgar. The compact lefty has been one of the team’s recent stars, topping South Africa’s run scoring charts in two of the last four series.

His composure and assurance at the top has been heightened by the failures of his partner. Though Stephen Cook has 3 three centuries in his 19 innings, he has had a woeful 2017 with flaws in his technique ruthlessly exposed.

Something has to change. The swinging and seaming new Duke in the upcoming Basil D’Oliveira trophy is going to be a tough prospect when delivered by Broad, Anderson and co. and the first South African wicket could set the tone for the series.

We look at five possible partners for Elgar. Whoever is given the task of walking out first at Lord’s on July 6th will need to be at his best. So who’ll be the best for the job?

Aiden Markram – 22 years old – 28 First Class matches, 1738 runs @ 41.38, 4 hundreds.

Widely touted as the next big thing in South African cricket, Aiden Markram is as fluent a stroke maker at the top of the order as you’re likely to see. With an ability to pick up length in lightning quick time and an eagerness to jump on anything short and pull it with aggression, Markram is the type of opener few bowlers would want to see get into a rhythm.

After 7 matches in the Sunfoil Series this past season, the youngster averaged 55.22 with 2 hundreds and 2 fifties. His form, as well as his potential, has been rewarded with the role of captaining the South African ‘A’ side for the upcoming tour of England.

Throwing such a green debutant into an away series of this magnitude is an obvious gamble, but one gets the feeling that there is a wise head on those young strong shoulders. In his sensational knock of 161 in the Titans’ winning final of the Momentum One Day Cup, he proved that he is a man for the big occasion. As daunting as it will no doubt be opening for the Proteas, he has all the talent to excel.

Theunis de Bruyn – 24 years old – 1 Test, 12 runs @ 6; 37 First Class matches, 2874 runs @ 47.9, 7 hundreds.

Not a natural opener, Theunis de Bruyn struggled when asked to fill the role vacated by Stephen Cook for the final Test against New Zealand in Hamilton. He lasted all of 9 balls in his first innings before fiddling outside his off stump and nicking off for a duck.

The South African selectors have already ruined the career of one swashbuckling middle order batsman when they deemed Stiaan van Zyl a suitable opener. Cricket is a game of specialised roles; just because you’re an ace standing at first slip does not guarantee you’ll naturally star with the keeping gloves on. So it is with opening the batting.

That does not mean that de Bruyn is out of the picture to join Elgar at the top of the innings. He had a wonderful Sunfoil Series, albeit in his usual position at 3, scoring 751 runs @ 57.76 with 2 hundreds and 4 fifties.

He is an aggressive batsman when in full flow but can also play a long game, waiting patiently to unleash his trademark crunching drive. His strength is also a weakness as he can be tempted into playing that booming shot, which might count against him when one considers he’ll be facing Jimmy Anderson, a bowler who has made a career inducing speculative pushes outside the off stump.

Temba Bavuma – 26 years old – 20 Tests, 849 runs @ 31.44, 1 hundred; 106 First Class matches, 5584 runs @ 37.47, 12 hundreds.

There might be some method to the madness of elevating the diminutive Temba Bavuma from his position at number 6. Not only is there the possibility that Bavuma would excel as an opener but it would also free up some space in the middle for more expansive players (lest we forget, AB de Villiers will need to be accommodated when fit and ready).

Bavuma has opened the batting before, against India in the 4th Test of the Proteas’ doomed series. With scores of 22 and 34, he didn’t exactly set the game on fire, but considering how much his teammates struggled on the dry and dusty tracks, his exploits were praiseworthy.

With a frame that barely touches 1.62m, he is vulnerable to the short ball and struggles to get on top of the bounce when pulling. However, if he can eradicate the shot entirely, there is no reason why his temperament could not translate into a successful stint at the top of the order. After all, Sachin Tendulkar scored 241 against Australia in Sydney without playing a cover drive; Bavuma could be a more than competent opener without a pull.

This move would come out of left field if it were to go ahead. Bavuma is settled at number 6 and has formed a successful partnership with Quinton de Kock against the second new ball and works well with the tail.

He has not been in the best form and only recently found something of a groove against the Kiwis after a horrendous series against Sri Lanka at home. It would be a risk disrupting his momentum by sending him out first, but then again, it might provide a catalyst for better things to come.

Quinton de Kock – 24 years old – 19 Tests, 1333 runs @ 51.26, 3 hundreds; 45 First Class matches, 3330 runs @ 49.7, 9 hundreds.

Quinton de Kock has been a revelation for South Africa at number seven and the early comparisons with Adam Gilchrist are not unfounded. No other batsman in world cricket is as destructive against the second new ball. His ability to turn a good score into a great one in no time means he remains the perfect weapon where he is.

But what if you could have that explosive power at the start of the innings? What if you could demoralise the opposition’s frontline bowlers and silence the crowd from the very first ball? It’s a gamble, sure, but the potential is at least worth considering.

De Kock has already shown how devastating he can be at the top of the order. Against New Zealand in Centurion last year he bludgeoned 82 from 114 and then 50 from 43 as South African won by 204 runs. The hard, batting friendly wickets of the Highveld are not the same as the seaming green tops of the UK, so those knocks should be the closing arguments in your case for de Kock the opener.

Working against this decision would be de Kock’s duties as keeper. But the real spanner in the works remains his contributions at 7. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. With an average that continues to climb, de Kock at 7 is certainly far from broken.

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If South Africa are to get their revenge, they’ll need whoever walks in with Elgar to provide stability, time at the crease and runs at the top. In some of the most challenging conditions for an opener, against bowlers who shine with the new ball, it’s not going to be easy.

 

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Daniel is a freelance sports journalist from Johannesburg who would always rather be watching Test ...

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