CAPE TOWN – South Africa’s selectors and management team would have closed the door on 2017 with at least three major concerns hanging over their heads before they sat down to ponder their options this week ahead of the start of the flagship Test series of the summer against India.
These were, in no particular order, the return of captain Faf du Plessis from a viral infection, whether Quinton de Kock had recovered from his hamstring strain in Port Elizabeth which would have meant AB de Villiers needed to keep wicket again, and, of course, how to get Dale Steyn into the starting line-up for the first Test at Newlands.
Coach Ottis Gibson at least allayed some of the concerns on Tuesday. Gibson confirmed Du Plessis will spin the coin alongside Virat Kohli on Friday morning, while normal service will resume behind the stumps with De Kock – and not De Villiers – taking the gloves again.
“Dale Steyn is fit again. But I don't know just yet whether we will see him this week,” Gibson said. “He has had a year's layoff. I don't think if we were to pick a three-man seam attack plus a spinner that you would want to put him in that three-man attack, in case something happens and that leaves the team vulnerable if he can't finish the game.
“That's not to say that he won't finish the game, but you don't want to take that risk in the first game of the summer. He will come into the discussion but it depends on the formation of the team that we put on the field.”
However, it seems the conditions and not only the composition of South Africa’s attack, is set to have a major bearing on whether Steyn will have the opportunity to claim the five wickets he needs to surpass Shaun Pollock’s national all-time national record at his former home ground.
“You're looking at three different sets of conditions,” Gibson explained. “Down here on the coast, the wicket tends to dry out quickly so you might play an extra bowler here. Further up into the Highveld, it might be different.
“We have to take each set of conditions as we find them now and then pick the best team for them.This is a world-class bowling attack and we've got to come up with the best combination to win this match and then think about the next one.” The Proteas will need all their bowlers to hit the ground running – that’s with or without Steyn – this Friday at Newlands. The match intensity will increase threefold after Gibson enjoyed a smooth transition into the Proteas hot seat after securing a comfortable series victory over Bangladesh before thrashing Zimbabwe in just two days by an innings and 120 runs last week in Port Elizabeth since taking over from Russell Domingo.
The “honeymoon” period is certainly over with India arriving in South Africa as the World’s No 1 ranked Test side after winning nine consecutive series.
“I didn’t think I was on a honeymoon or aware that it started. I am sure you will let me know it is over the course of the next five days of this Test match. We're playing the best team in the world and you obviously have to have your A game,” Gibson chirped.
“You play a series against the best teams in the world and then the prize at the end of it is to reach the pinnacle and be called the best team in the world - even if it is just for a series or a week. The objective for this team is to try and get to No. 1. We feel strongly that if we win the next two series that will put us somewhere very close to being No. 1 again.”