Skipper Faf du Plessis – who really is in good form – scored 84 in the first innings for the Titans in Bloemfontein against the Knights, the start of which was tricky on a surface from which Duanne Olivier in particular extracted lots of assistance.
More importantly for the Proteas batting Hashim Amla, got in some much needed time at the crease for the Cape Cobras in Port Elizabeth.
After a first ball duck in the first innings, Amla batted for over three hours in the second dig, scoring 61 and facing 135 balls. As much as boosting his confidence, that innings also hopefully helped Amla find some rhythm.
Amla has struggled to maintain the stratospheric standards of six years ago – which is almost impossible – and his recent contributions for the Proteas in the Test format have consisted mainly of absorbing pressure.
On home soil that has meant playing carefully on a lot of seamer friendly surfaces and as a result his statistics don’t make for good reading.
In the last two years in 22 Tests, Amla averages 36.35, well below his overall Test average of 47.23.
He scored three centuries in that period, two against Bangladesh, and his biggest impact last season came in the second Test against the Australians in Port Elizabeth when he and Dean Elgar blocked the best the Australians could produce with a reverse swinging ball to help lay the foundation for the masterclass that AB de Villiers would later produce.
In South Africa’s last Test in July against Sri Lanka, Amla dropped one spot down the order to No4, allowing Theunis de Bruyn to bat at No3, a spot from which he made a gritty second innings century in Colombo.
De Bruyn didn’t play the last round of four-day matches for the Titans, as he continued with the rehabilitation for his back, but he is confident he’ll be ready for Wednesday’s start at SuperSport Park. If he plays he should continue in the No3 role which would give Amla extra time.
The rest of the South African batting order picks itself; openers Aiden Markram and Dean Elgar didn’t put huge scores on the board for the Titans, but Elgar had a lot of time in the middle and Markram knows, despite not making good on his starts across different formats this season, that he is at least hitting the ball well.
Temba Bavuma was another who is nursing an injury - in his case a right hamstring strain - and hopefully the extra rehabilitation should see him start on Boxing Day.
If not Zubayr Hamza, called into the squad for the first time, showed he had found some form in PE as well, with a lively innings of 74 not out for the Cobras.
The bowling is a concern; neither Dale Steyn nor Kagiso Rabada played for the franchises in the four-day competition, as the national team’s management chose to wrap them in cotton wool ahead of the Test series which will be played out over 21 days.
Olivier, who should start the first Test in Vernon Philander’s absence, bowled nearly 30 overs for the Knights in Bloemfontein, claiming seven wickets, and will go into the Test high on confidence.
Philander, who has a hairline fracture on his thumb, is expected to be back for the second Test starting on January 3 in Cape Town, but Dane Paterson has
been brought into the squad as cover.
* Pakistan meanwhile got an excellent workout in Benoni against an SA Invitation XI, and their batsmen in particular would have drawn a lot of confidence from that three-day match. Azhar Ali and Babar Azam made hundreds, while opener Imam ul-Haq got a half-century in the second innings.
Like South Africa they too have an injury worry in the bowling department; Mohammad Abbas who took ‘10-for’ on a flat track in Abu Dhabi to help beat Australia in October, is still undergoing rehab for a shoulder injury and has been rated ‘50-50’ to start the first Test.@shockerhess