LONDON - The far right net at the practice facility at Lord's, was no place for a batsman on Tuesday morning as South Africa’s seamers set about finding their rhythm and form ahead of Thursday's opening Test against England.
Regardless of who was facing them, Vernon Philander, Kagiso Rabada and Morne Morkel were making their batting teammates hop, skip, fend and miss. Coach Russell Domingo smiled, as did bowling coach Charl Langeveldt. The only people not smiling were the batsmen.
That’s a good sign, because for South Africa to win this series it’s on their bowlers that they’ll be leaning. It’s been the bowlers who’ve been the most consistent element for the South African team in the last 12 months. In that period SA have won seven out of 11 Tests. A sign of how strong the bowling has been, is that the Proteas have eschewed utilising an established new ball combination and in fact had six different pairs to open the bowling.
Some of that was by design, some was forced on them, but it says a lot about the bowlers’ versatility and adaptabilty that - regardless of who takes the ‘new nut’ - South Africa has remained dangerous.
England will start the first Test with three-left handers in their top order, something that won’t displease Morkel and Philander and it would be no surprise that they took the new ball. Five years ago, at Lord’s, Morkel took the new ball ahead of Dale Steyn, causing much buzz among the experts, only for Morkel to remove Andrew Strauss with the third ball of the match. A similar start tomorrow would go down very well with stand-in skipper Dean Elgar.
He’d have been pleased to see Philander charging in with real venom on Tuesday. Besides his superb skill, Philander brings a forthrightness to the squad.
“We can’t focus on what’s happened in the past, that’s gone,” he said about a tour in which South Africa has lost ODI and T20 series’ to England and were bounced out of the Champions Trophy in the group stage. “There’s a lot of fresh new energy in the squad, there’s a lot for us to look forward to.
“This is a totally new format, we start 0-0, the boys are all excited about this. It’s a format we do really well in. Playing against the stronger nations brings out the best in us, we’ve got a hell of a record away from home and hopefully we continue that.”
English conditions suit Philander, as does the Duke ball. It retains its shine longer than it’s Kookaburra cousin that’s used in SA. Philander took 12 wickets in three Tests in 2012, seven coming in the series decider at Lord’s, including a second innings five-for.
The famous slope that runs across the ground causes him no discomfort and he’s learnt to use it to his benefit.
“It does provide a wicket-taking option, especially when (the pitch) gets flat, when you can use the slope to run the ball back in and even more so if there’s a bit of movement (through the air).”
While the South African bowlers seem capable of doing their jobs, the same level of confidence can’t be attached to the batsmen. They’ll carry a debutant in Heino Kuhn and a middle order batsman in Theunis de Bruyn, who’s just played one Test. The latter has not had good form in England for SA 'A' and in the warm-up game at Worcester last weekend he made nought. In addition two senior batsmen; Hashim Amla and JP Duminy have been inconsistent in the last year.
Philander and the bowling unit will have to set the tone for the tourists against an England side that has plenty to ponder in terms of the selection of its starting team. They look set to play six bowlers - three of whom, including Ben Stokes, will be all-rounders. The question is what the balance will be - four seamers and two spinners or five seamers and one spinner.
Either way, it will give their new captain, Joe Root, plenty of options and provide their batting with a lot of depth.