JOHANNESBURG - South Africa’s batsmen know that they must leave their egos at the gates and forego thoughts of enormous averages as a means for their team to be successful, particularly on home soil.
They will have to take blows to the body because on pitches with pace and bounce, on which South Africa wants to play, bowlers will often hold sway.
However, perhaps in helping them provide the foundation for success, the selectors - who include the coach and captain when it comes to deciding on the playing XI - can provide a little more support.
When South Africa were successful in India, Australia and England in 2008, it was with a team that had six frontline batsmen. By 2012 when they won again in Australia and England, they were playing with seven frontline batsmen. Both those teams, with different structures, contained Jacques Kallis, whose wide ranging skill-set proved crucial to South Africa’s success in that period.
Since his retirement, South Africa have struggled with finding the right balance for the team. What’s happened, and which until this recently completed series with India, seemed to be Faf du Plessis’ preference was for the team to play with seven frontline batsmen, the last of those, batting at No 7, being wicket-keeper Quinton de Kock.
For the India series, the first major Test assignment for new coach Ottis Gibson, it was felt that South Africa, with the kind of seam bowlers at their disposal, had to play them all plus the spinner. A batsman - Temba Bavuma - was sacrificed and South Africa won. Even when Dale Steyn’s bruised heel ended his series, South Africa retained the 6/5 batsman/bowler split for the second Test, with Lungi Ngidi emerging as a new star.
At the Wanderers however, the structure should have been changed, South Africa needed to play Theunis de Bruyn there as a seventh batsmen, given that pitch. There was no need for a fifth seam bowling option, and it felt like Andile Phehlukwayo’s selection was a waste of a spot.
The debate about playing six batsmen as opposed to seven will be the main topic of discussion when Australia arrive here for four Tests at the end of February. South Africa need to solve that issue first. Du Plessis spoke at the end of the England series last year that for South African conditions, the Test team needed seven batsmen, but Gibson seems to have twisted his arm this summer, explaining that the Proteas needed to be more aggressive and that the more aggressive structure was for six batsmen and five bowlers.
A major part of the problem for South Africa against India was Quinton de Kock's loss of form. Not only has the keeper/batsman lost form, but confidence too, and where last year many were wondering if he was an option at No 4 in the order, after the India series, very serious consideration needs to be given to whether he is in fact a good option at No 6. De Kock averaged 11.83 in the three Tests against India, and overall in his career, when he’s batted in that spot - in 15 innings - his average is 24.92. At No 7 De Kock averages 52.56.
“Quinny’s a personality that doesn’t think too much about technical stuff, he’s a free spirit, X-factor player and when things go wrong, like any player you feel there’s pressure,” said Du Plessis. “Ultimately, for Quinny it’s just confidence. As soon as you get one innings where he’s hitting the ball in the middle, he’ll be able to relax and play his game again.”
The South African captain hopes the upcoming One-Day series - starting in Durban on Thursday - will help to “unshackle” De Kock and turn his season around.
For now, Du Plessis says, De Kock’s spot in the Test team is not in danger. However, regardless of whether he does regain form, asking him to bat at No 6 is something that looks like it needs re-thinking, especially for the Australia series. Mitchell Starc and Co. won’t take as long to adjust to South African conditions as India did.