The Proteas celebrate a wicket on their way to victory in the second Test against New Zealand. Photo: Associated Press
FOUR successive series victories have culminated in a march back up to No 2 on the Test rankings for the Proteas. Considering not so long ago that the same team had slipped down to No 7 in the world, it only seems right that Cricket South Africa should be a cock-a-hoop with the Proteas, like they were in a congratulatory press statement released earlier this week.

“Our team has been playing excellently over an extended period of time,” read one line in the release. Another line stated: “We can certainly face the future with a sense of confidence and optimism.”

While coach Russell Domingo and captain Faf du Plessis’ team undoubtedly have to be lauded for turning around their fortunes over the past 12 months, I unfortunately don’t share the same “optimism” about the future.

Although Du Plessis was ready to “block for two days” in Hamilton in a bid to secure another epic draw, the skipper conceded the rain that washed out play on the final day at Seddon Park was a saving grace.

It surely was South Africa’s last “get out of jail” card in a summer where they have flirted with danger on too many occasions for comfort.

There is much praise to be afforded to a side that constantly fights back after it’s been pinned down. It shows that the players possess plenty of grit and determination.

Equally, there is an abundance of skill and talent within the bowling line-up that has often provided the impetus for victory.

But at some point the core of any Test side - the batting unit - has to take on the responsibility of setting up the contest. Substantial first innings totals are the foundation of any consistently successful Test side.

No side can continue winning without posting totals in excess of 400 on a regular basis. The Proteas have only gone past 400 once in 11 innings on foreign shores this past summer.

This glaring statistic places senior batsmen like JP Duminy and Hashim Amla under severe pressure ahead of the looming England Test series.

The axe has already fallen on veteran opener Stephen Cook, with the selectors pushing Theunis de Bruyn up the order unsuccessfully in the final Test at Seddon Park. It is unlikely to be a long-term move for the Knights captain, but it does show that the selectors are ready to make changes to a misfiring top-order.

This leaves the Proteas with a conundrum ahead of such a major series. Stick with the experience of Duminy and Cook, and hope they eventually come good or blood youngsters such as De Bruyn and Titans wunderkind Aiden Markram in such a high-profile series.

It is a tough call considering England possesses one of the finest new-ball attacks in Stuart Broad and James Anderson. Equally, the off-field pressures relating to the relentless English media can make or break a young batsman’s Test career.

Even a larger-than-life character such as Indian captain Virat Kohli struggled to contend with the swinging Duke ball and the tabloids.

South Africa does have a positive history of sending young batsmen to England. Think Graeme Smith when opposing captain Nasser Hussain did not even know his name before “Biff” clubbed two successive double hundreds on his maiden tour of England.

The IPL and the ICC Champions Trophy will be a welcome break away from these Test side debates, but when Linda Zondi and his national selection panel do eventually convene to pick that English touring party, the meeting might just be a little longer than usual.

Cape Times