South Africa’s Opening Conundrum

A half-hearted sway forward. An angled bat coming down lazily. The ball skids on through bat and pad. Alviro Petersen is bowled by Sulieman Benn and is dismissed for possibly the final time in Test cricket.

Chasing just 122 for the win, Petersen appeared edgy at the crease and looked all at sea against the lolloping left arm spin of the giant Benn. It wasn’t just the way in which he failed to pick Benn’s quicker arm ball, it was the lazy nature of his forward defensive and his confused technique that were cause for concern. Petersen had the look of a condemned man.

Pressure has been building on Petersen throughout this year as his wait for a Test hundred goes on. It’s not that he is being dismissed for single figure scores on a regular basis, rather that he is failing to convert promising starts. Which in many ways is more frustrating than outright failures.

Petersen’s average of 35 from 35 Tests illustrates his limitations as a Test batsman. He has the rudimentary technique and bloody mindedness to make contributions in Test cricket but appears to lack the skill and temperament to make the match winning scores.

Looking at his last 12 months in Test cricket, it paints an even sorrier picture for Petersen. In 8 Tests he has passed 50 just once and averages a paltry 20. Not many Test opening batman would be afforded the luxury of being able to endure such a torrid run of form. But South Africa aren’t most teams; consistency of selection is one of the their defining features. Indeed, AB De Villiers has not missed a match since his debut – 97 Test matches ago. In truth, it is this unwillingness to change the side that has kept Petersen in his opener’s berth.

With the retirements of Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis and recent injuries, South Africa have had to introduce a few new players in one go; not something they enjoy doing. Stiaan Van Zyl has been drafted into the middle order and Temba Bavuma has joined him for the last 2 Tests. Coupled with Dean Elgar still learning the ropes as Test opener, the South African batting line up cuts a decidedly inexperienced figure. So perhaps it is experience that is keeping Petersen in the side, having played 35 Tests and being 34 years old, he is now a senior batsman alongside De Villiers and captain Hashim Amla.

But the time has come to pull the plug on Petersen’s Test career. With no Test cricket for a few months followed by a tour to Bangladesh; now would be the ideal time to ease in a new man at the top of the order before the much anticipated visit of England at the back end of the year.

So if Petersen has played his last Test innings, who’s in line to replace him?

Stiaan Van Zyl has settled in well in the Proteas middle order

Stiaan Van Zyl has settled in well in the Proteas middle order

A lot of people I’ve spoken to have called for Stiaan Van Zyl to be installed at the top of the order. The 27 year old left hander impressed on debut with a brilliant hundred. But that knock came down at number 6; where of course the immense Amla and De Villiers shielded him from the new ball and fresh bowlers. However, Van Zyl has batted regularly at number 3 for his side in domestic cricket and topped the averages last winter, scoring just under 1,000 runs at an average of over 58. He is a batsman who has the experience of 100 first class matches to fall back on and is entering his prime both in terms of age and form.

The down side to moving Van Zyl up the order, is that it would mean more movement amongst the middle order batsmen. It can be expected that JP Duminy will return to the side for the Proteas next Test outing following his recovery from injury and he can replace Van Zyl in the middle order. But Bavuma has not convinced in his two outings to date and ideally South Africa would perhaps like to give him another year’s first class experience before blooding him again.

The other option at the top of the order is Quinton De Kock. The wicketkeeper-batsman is another who’s currently out injured but he will be fit and firing by the time South Africa next line up for a Test. With 2 fifties from his first 8 test innings, De Cock has not set the world alight and hasn’t yet been tested at the top of the order. But at just 22 years old, he has time on his side and is someone who could be an integral part of the Test side for the next decade.

Quinton De Kock would be an exciting addition at the top of the order

Quinton De Kock would be an exciting addition at the top of the order

 

He has made a blistering start to his ODI career and has proved that he holds no fear. His six ODI hundreds and a strike rate of nearly 90 demonstrate his attacking ability, and with it likely to be Elgar for company at the top of the Test order, that’s not a bad quality to posses.

The openers roles have actually been troubling South Africa for some time in Test cricket. Both Petersen and Smith and current pairing of Petersen and Elgar have averaged in the mid-30’s for the first wicket. Not a disastrous platform but not the commanding position you’d expect from the world’s no.1 Test team either.

For what it’s worth, I ‘d give De Kock a go. He’s young, exciting and has the ability to win a Test in a session. Sure he’d fail plenty at the start of his career, but with De Villiers and Amla in the form of their life in the middle order and Faf Du Plessis looking more and more embedded at number three, South Africa can afford a maverick talent at the top of the order. With a bit of luck and some support from his team, De Kock can enjoy the same success as David Warner has seen over the last year.

For a side considered the most settled in world cricket, the last few months have thrown up some interesting selection conundrums for the Proteas. After some tweaking in the middle order, their latest task will be to find a settled, successful opening pair.

*UPDATE

I wrote this piece just an hour or so before Alviro announced his retirement from international cricket – hence why he’s still discussed as the current opener.

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