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The questions never stop and the goals always need to be reset. South Africa sit atop the cricket tree following their most successful year in living memory.
Ten Tests played, five won and five drawn; series wins in England and Australia. That made for astonishing results this year – but it can’t stop now (or next year for that matter).
It’s tempting to look past what South Africa face in the remainder of the season and say: “Well, they’ll just extend their lead at the top of the ICC rankings.” They should, but they’ll be doing their supporters and especially themselves a massive disservice if complacency sets in now.
On paper, New Zealand should be thrashed in the two Tests they play here in January. The mess that unfolded over their captaincy, which has sidelined their best batsman, Ross Taylor, leaves them severely handicapped. However, the Black Caps have a good attack which will enjoy bowling in South African conditions, something Graeme Smith and the batting line-up must be aware of.
Pakistan will be a slightly tougher assignment, mainly because they’re an unknown factor. The Pakistanis last played Tests in July, in Sri Lanka (a three-match series they lost 1-0) but despite that lengthy break, have built a useful record in the past few years. That defeat in Galle was one of just two they suffered in their last 18 Tests dating back to the controversial series in England in 2010.
Conditions in South Africa won’t worry them too much – two of their three Test wins against South Africa were achieved in this country – but their lack of Test match play will, as will South Africa’s current form.
With all the chopping and changing at the top of the Test rankings in recent years, this is the first time any team have had the opportunity to establish themselves as the No1 side for any length of time.
Victories over New Zealand and Pakistan should keep South Africa ahead of the chasing pack until the mouth-watering series against Australia and India next summer.
The make-up of the side seems set to remain the same with seven batsmen providing what Gary Kirsten described as the “X-factor”. However, the identity of the ‘X-factor’ player will provide for some intrigue in the coming weeks.
The Sunfoil Series resumes in 10 days with two rounds of matches before the first Test against New Zealand on January 2 in Cape Town, allowing Andrew Hudson and his selectors an opportunity to ponder what moves to make and which players to give a chance to make an impression.
Certainly the decision to pick Dean Elgar for the Perth Test was the wrong one. Even in light of the terrific outcome, it seemed a poor call; fortunately it wasn’t costly.
Elgar can return to domestic cricket and try to restore his confidence, as of course can Jacques Rudolph, whose returns have been modest when compared with the top order.
Among batsmen not in the side recently, no one has really stood out.
Only three rounds of Sunfoil Series matches were possible due to the Champions League and then the Momentum One-Day Cup, which will conclude on Friday. It’s left the selectors with very little data to work with as far as selection is concerned, which only adds to the importance of the matches taking place around Christmas.
Most of the squad who toured Australia will probably be involved in at least one of those Sunfoil matches to keep them ticking over as it were.
Thami Tsolekile is the big loser in the whole seven-batsmen strategy and his future as an international player now looks very murky indeed.
It’s an unfortunate turn of events for Tsolekile, who when Mark Boucher’s career was ended and he was given a national contract, would have been confident of donning the gloves at international level once more.
But given the success of playing seven batsmen, Kirsten and Co would be foolish to move away from that strategy now, with an injury to AB de Villiers looking the likeliest passage into the starting XI for Tsolekile.
With the exception of Morné Morkel, the bowling was largely flat in Australia. However, on South Africa’s livelier pitches, Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander will be more threatening.
The intriguing aspect of the attack relates to the spinner, with Robin Peterson having the opportunity to establish himself in the long-term as the side’s premier tweaker. Imran Tahir’s short-term future in the Test side is on hold.
The irony won’t be lost on long-time viewers that South Africa have gone back to a left-arm spinner.