South Africa will field four frontline quicks as often as possible, particularly at home, as they aim for a more aggressive approach in familiar conditions. After the team’s 72-run win in the opening Test against India, which was effectively achieved inside three days with a four-pronged pack pack, coach Ottis Gibson indicated the team balance will not change and South Africa will keep firing with their fast men.
“I’m a very fast-bowling minded coach and I guess we will always have to find a balance to see if we get four fast bowlers in the team, first of all. We’ll look at things like are the conditions suited to four fast bowlers. If not we try and shape the team in other ways,” Gibson said. “Ultimately, especially in this series and for the rest of the summer, we will be looking to see how best we can fit four fast bowlers into whatever formula we come up with.”
The hosts went into the Newlands Test with their strongest quartet of seamers – Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander, Morne Morkel and Kagiso Rabada – and on a pitch with good pace, bounce and carry bowled India out for scores of 209 and 135 despite losing Steyn to injury midway through the match. With surfaces only expected to get spicier as the series moves up-country to SuperSport Park and The Wanderers, Gibson wants to keep the same structure to the side.
Steyn has been ruled out of the remaining matches with a heel injury, which means one of Duanne Olivier, Lungi Ngidi, Chris Morris or Andile Phehlukwayo will likely be included in the XI for the second and third Tests. Which one will depend on whoever can convince Gibson they’re up for the biggest fight. South Africa’s new coach is interested in a bowler who is willing to show his fast and furious side.
“When you are playing at home, you must play to your strengths,” Gibson said. “If you want to beat the best team in the world, which India are, then maybe we have to do something slightly different to what we’ve done in the past. We have to get stuck in and be tough with the bat and the ball; get in their faces a bit and use our physicality in terms of our pace. We had, in this game, three guys bowling over 140 [kph] so we need to use that and have a presence that says we are trying to get to where you are as a team.”
Given that South Africa have six more Tests in the next 12 weeks (two against India and four against Australia) and Gibson’s approach to the team make-up, a logical question will be over the fitness of the fast men. Already, South Africa are one down, with Steyn’s injury, and over the last year all of Philander, Morkel, Morris and Ngidi have had relatively serious injuries.
Asked how he intends to keep them all firing through the summer, Gibson explained that he is working on a national plan that will cover all the country’s quicks to achieve their long-term availability. “Last week we had a discussion with the medical panel about trying to set up a a group of people to look after fast bowlers better. I think that fast bowlers are the bedrock of a really good cricket system and if we want to be No.1 in the world, especially in our conditions, fast bowlers are very important to that process,” Gibson said. “We need to find ways of looking after, monitoring, training our fast bowlers better because there have been a lot of injuries even before I got here.”
The flip side to Gibson’s approach is that it will also have effects on players of other disciplines, such as spinners. South Africa has never been a country renowned for its spinners but recently, Keshav Maharaj has been so reliable that he is often the only slower bowler included in Test squads. Maharaj played at Newlands but bowled only 10 overs out of the 116.2 South Africa delivered and it’s difficult to see how he will have more to do on the Highveld.
Still, with a winter tour to Sri Lanka later in the year, Gibson has provided Maharaj with reassurance that he is a key part of South Africa’s plans. “He has been spoken to about how we will look to shape up for this series and he is very much a part of it,” Gibson said. “He is still a very important part of our group whether he plays or not. Keshav is very much a part of our plans for the rest of the summer and even further going forward because he is a world-class player.”
The other group affected by the decision to go guns blazing are the batsmen and South Africa’s also suffered on a sporting pitch. Though they made 286 in their first innings, all of them apart from AB de Villiers, who contributed almost a quarter of the total team runs on his own in the match, struggled. A standout feature of de Villiers’ innings was his intent to score runs quickly, a tactic Hardik Pandya also employed for India.
Gibson said he would continue to encourage that style of batting, rather than a conservative approach which will slow the game down. “If you think on a wicket like this, as a batsmen, there’s always a ball with your name on it, then the simple approach is to make sure you get your runs before that ball gets you,” Gibson said. “Try and play positively. The pitches will lend itself to pace and seam movement and batsmen have to adapt but ultimately once you’re there, you’ve got to try and get runs. If you bat 15 overs and score no runs and then that ball with your name comes and you’ve scored no runs then you haven’t really moved the game forward. The message that I will be giving is that when you get out in the middle try as best as you can to get runs before the ball gets you.”