CAPE TOWN – At the beginning of the home Test season that encompassed nine matches in just over six months, it was generally decreed that the toughest assignments for the Proteas would only come around in the New Year.
Thus far this assessment has been proved correct. Bangladesh were wiped away in two one-sided contests, and it is widely viewed that South Africa’s northern neighbours Zimbabwe have crossed the border merely to test the experiment of four-day Tests using a pink ball under lights.
It is certainly a welcoming honeymoon period for new coach Ottis Gibson before the likes of World No 1 India and new Ashes holders Australia arrive in the country.
At the moment it seems Gibson’s biggest headache does not involve plotting the opposition’s downfall, but rather the team he is going to field at St George’s Park on Boxing Day. Former captain AB de Villiers is available for selection once again across all formats, while fast bowlers Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander and Morne Morkel have all returned from injury.
“It is a good nightmare,” Gibson said in reference to the returning players in Port Elizabeth on Friday. “You’re bringing back such good quality players. If you look at the strength of the team it is pleasing. It is good to have those players back.
“AB hasn’t played for a couple of years. Vernon’s been injured. Morne Morkel back in the frame as well. Getting the right blend will be a great challenge, but one we looking forward to.”
Gibson may yet, though, be exempted from having a tough conversation with a batsman due to captain Faf du Plessis’s likely unavailability. Du Plessis has not played any cricket since late October when he hurt his back during the second ODI against Bangladesh, and at the same time, had surgery on a problematic shoulder. De Villiers would slot straight into Du Plessis’s place should the team management decide not to risk the skipper in view of the contests still to come this summer.
However, the composition of the bowling unit is not that straightforward though. Philander is the only one of the returning trio that has played a first-class match at franchise level, while Morkel has had a bowl for Easterns at semi-pro level. Steyn, meanwhile, just completed 12 overs with the pink ball against the Zimbabweans in Paarl.
The major concern would be around Steyn’s fitness, though, considering the 34-year-old was helped off the Waca with a broken shoulder last November upon return from a different injury.
Gibson has previously stated that he will back Steyn to play if he’s fit and available because “He is not some average guy from down the road. He is one of the best bowlers the country has ever produced.”
The former England bowling coach sang from a similar hymn sheet on Friday.
“He (Steyn) has been a champion bowler. Along with Jimmy Anderson, they have probably been the best of the modern generation in terms of wickets taken, games played. The way he has led South Africa’s attack for a number of years,” Gibson enthused.
“He obviously has had a number of injuries recently, but it’s good to see him back on the field and good to have him back in squad. He bowled two spells. Twelve overs. Sometimes you just to wait and see how he pulls up after that game.”
It is unlikely South Africa will be able to fit in all the returning fast bowlers, especially after Gibson’s conversations with the St George’s Park groundsman Adrian Carter.
“The wicket looks nice. PE has always been flat wicket. I spoke to the groundsman; he doesn’t expect it to be too quick. There might be some seam movement,” Gibson added.
The Proteas trained under lights at St George's Park on Friday evening with the pink ball.
IOL Sport's Zaahier Adams will be at St George's Park for the Boxing Day test so follow @ZaahierAdams and @iolsport on twitter