At least one of South Africa’s selection conundrums appears to have already been solved with Dale Steyn‘s comeback likely to be delayed by another week. Conditions at Newlands usually call for a three-seamer, one spinner attack (to which South Africa might add an allrounder). Given Steyn’s lengthy absence from international cricket, coach Ottis Gibson appears reluctant to include him in that combination.
“Dale Steyn is fit again. But I don’t know just yet whether we will see him this week,” Gibson said. “He has had a year’s layoff. I don’t think if we were to pick a three-man seam attack plus a spinner that you would want to put him in that three-man attack, in case something happens and that leaves the team vulnerable if he can’t finish the game. That’s not to say that he won’t finish the game, but you don’t want to take that risk in the first game of the summer. He will come into the discussion but it depends on the formation of the team that we put on the field.”
Those who have been waiting to see Steyn steaming in may not have to wait much beyond the first 10 days of January. Gibson has described his use of South Africa’s full strength squad as being a “horses for courses” approach and suggested that the pace spearhead will be unleashed on the Highveld, where the second and third Test will be played.
“You’re looking at three different sets of conditions,” Gibson said. “Down here on the coast, the wicket tends to dry out quickly so you might play an extra bowler [allrounder] here. Further up into the Highveld, it might be different. We have to take each set of conditions as we find them now and then pick the best team for them.”
The extra week could also be used to get Steyn properly match-fit. Though the franchises are involved in the one-day cup, Steyn could play in a three-day provincial round of matches which would allow him to bowl several spells in competitive conditions to prepare himself to compete on equal terms with the other five quicks – Kagiso Rabada, Vernon Philander, Morne Morkel, Chris Morris and Andile Phehlukwayo – in a team that should have an attack for every occasion.
“This is a world-class bowling attack and we’ve got to come up with the best combination to win this match and then think about the next one,” Gibson said. “But certainly this attack, if all those guys are able to take the field then this will be up there with the best ones.”
It is this attack that he hopes South Africa will be able to call on as they aim to challenge for the top spot in Test cricket again. Currently, they lie at No. 2 and will need a clean sweep over India and to beat Australia by a margin of at least two Tests in order to reclaim the mace. While this may be a long shot, it is also probably the only shot Gibson will get at making a serious challenge in Tests.
South Africa’s schedule peters out after this summer, with only a tour to Sri Lanka and home series against Sri Lanka and Pakistan before the 2019 World Cup, which Gibson has been tasked with winning. While the ICC tournament remains Gibson’s major focus, he understands this Test summer could also define his tenure as coach.
“In one-day cricket, I don’t worry too much about rankings because it’s built around a four-year cycle of World Cup cricket,” he said. “You can be No. 1 in the world and you don’t win the World Cup. It doesn’t matter where you are once you go to the World Cup. In Test cricket it’s different. You play a series against the best teams in the world and then the prize at the end of it is to reach the pinnacle and be called the best team in the world – even if it is just for a series or a week. The objective for this team is to try and get to No. 1. We feel strongly that if we win the next two series that will put us somewhere very close to being No. 1 again. The next two series will tell us [where we stand] or take us somewhere towards where we want to go. Everybody understands what we are trying to achieve.”
Gibson has a full strength squad at his disposal with all the previously injured and ill players now available for selection. Apart from Steyn, South Africa also have AB de Villiers back from a self-imposed sabbatical, Chris Morris has been included in the squad after a lengthy back problem, Quinton de Kock has recovered from a hamstring strain and Faf du Plessis is healthy after a viral infection. There is a slight concern over Hashim Amla, who has picked up “sniffles”, but Gibson expects all 15 members of his squad to be in contention to play the opening Test at Newlands which starts on Friday.