LONDON - Russell Domingo admits that the Proteas, despite being ranked no.2 in the Test format, are still a “long way from being the finished article.”
South Africa lost both Tests in London by hefty margins - 211 runs at Lord’s and 239 runs at The Oval - and have to win in Manchester from Friday to salvage the series. That won’t be easy. If the trend of this series is to continue, South Africa has to bat first, bat big, thereby landing the first punch and England will crumble.
Except the English see a big opportunity now and by accident appear to have stumbled onto a more balanced combination than the one that played the first two Tests. Toby Roland-Jones is a fine support bowler behind James Anderson and Stuart Broad, and Tom Westley looks a solid choice at No.3
Meanwhile South Africa are trying to bed in a new opener, a new no.4 and a new lower order all-rounder - none of whom played well at The Oval.
“There’s a lot of tinkering that still needs to take place,” said Domingo. “It might not have shown in this game but we’re getting a better understanding as to what the best XI will be going forward,” he added.
As far as the Old Trafford Test is concerned, Faf du Plessis has stated he’d prefer if Heino Kuhn continued to open despite averaging 13 in the series.
“Heino has a fantastic record and is a great team man. He has some technical stuff he can work on but he’s earned the right to be given an opportunity to play because of the sheer weight of runs for SA 'A' and the Titans. So sure it hasn’t been an ideal start, but it’s a hard job. Hopefully he can turn the corner and make a big play soon.”
“Also, the player that’s not playing is always better than the one who is. That’s just the way it is.”
In this case that player is Aiden Markram - initially chosen in an observer capacity - he’s actually had a lot of game-time in the series as 12th man, fielding more than Vernon Philander did in the last Test.
Overall South Africa’s batting is a major concern. In eight Tests in 2017, South Africa’s batsmen have scored six centuries - Dean Elgar has three. Pitches and the quality of the bowlers they’ve faced have all been forwarded as reasons for the paucity of Test hundreds.
By contrast the bowlers delight in playing on surfaces that offer them assistance - and said Domingo, the South African batsmen prefer it that way too. They’ve been able to scrap in Hobart, Wellington and Nottingham to get enough runs for the bowlers to work with, and it’s proven a successful strategy.
Of course the onus is on the bowlers to make good use of the conditions - something they managed at Trent Bridge, but which they palpably failed to do at The Oval. Much has been made of the selection of an ill Philander. It was a risk that in hindsight was not worth taking but even so South Africa’s bowling was poor - in helpful conditions - highlighted by Morris conceding runs at a rate of 5.75 an over in the match.
“I don’t think he’s a front-three seamer; he’s going to be your fourth seamer,” said Domingo.
“In this particular game he had to play as your third seamer because of Vernon’s inactivity. So his overs are always going to be niceties to have.”
That worked in the second Test where Morris dismissed Joe Root and Alastair Cook, with two snorters, but his consistency needs work.
South Africa’s balance with four seamers and the spinner is one that works with this particular squad. Despite this having been a difficult tour - both on and off the field for Domingo - he says the challenges faced are precisely why he’s so enthused about staying on as head coach.
“If you were rocking up with Smith, Kallis, Steyn, Morkel, Philander, De Villiers, it probably gets easier. But here your work is cut out,” he said. “You’ve got to juggle and and try to find the right balance. That’s always exciting and challenging and that’s why you coach, I suppose, to get through those type of periods.”