South Africa and Zimbabwe brace for the unknown


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Five years ago, Cricket South Africa decided to try something new over Boxing Day. Instead of host a Test, as has become a (modern, in this country) tradition, they opted to play limited-overs matches against New Zealand in the hope that the shorter format would encourage a more festive vibe. But they misread the mood severely and were met with a barrage of complaints from people who were expecting to see players in whites in the week between Christmas and New Year.

Yes, even though stadiums are only a quarter-full, if that, over the Boxing Day, South Africans enjoy the fixture (even if only from the comfort of their living rooms) and CSA resolved not to experiment like that again.

Yet, here we are.

Because India took their time confirming fixtures and ultimately decided they would only be ready to play in 2018, CSA opted to schedule this year’s Boxing Day match over four days and under lights. The ICC has agreed it can be a called a Test but there are doubters, the most prominent of which are the South African players. As recently as October, Test captain Faf du Plessis and opening batsman Dean Elgar rubbished the idea of four-day Tests and now they find themselves playing one. Some fans are unhappy with the concept too, others with the quality of the opposition, but all in all, the next four days could end up being nothing more than a bit of fun for South Africa.

It’s a way to end a tough year, in which the goodwill of victories over Sri Lanka and Bangladesh has been overshadowed by the disappointment of a limp Champions Trophy effort, a Test series loss to England, and the postponement of the T20 Global League, with something positive.

No disrespect to Zimbabwe but much, much tougher contests await their hosts and South Africa could well be regarding this as a warm-up match for India. For Zimbabwe, though, this may be the last Test they play for a while. With financial constraints inhibiting their ability to host Tests, a new Test league all but excluding them, and a World Cup to qualify for, the shorter formats will be their focus in the immediate future but this is an opportunity to make a case to be invited to play more Tests.

So far, Zimbabwe have done the opposite. They lost to a CSA Invitation XI – a team with only four players with franchise experience – in Paarl and will need every member of their XI to perform if they are to compete.

As a country, Zimbabwe will remember 2017 as a year of some progress because it was the year Robert Mugabe’s 37-year presidency ended. As a cricket team that performed well in Sri Lanka before losing to West Indies at home, the next four days may determine their assessment of themselves this year.

Form guide

South Africa WWLLW (last five completed matches, most recent first)
Zimbabwe DLLLL

In the spotlight

It has not been an easy 2017 for Vernon Philander but he has the chance to end it on a positive note as he makes his return after a forgettable England tour. Philander went into that trip gingerly after an ankle niggle, suffered from illness in the third Test, and was kept out of the fourth by injury. In the aftermath, he had several notables, including former captain Graeme Smith, questioning his commitment and conditioning. Now, Philander has the chance to set the record straight. This format should suit him perfectly and he could cause serious problems, particularly under lights, against batsmen uncomfortable against the moving ball, and could also use this match to set himself up for a big summer and ensure his career is not, as Smith suggested, on the wane.

Since recommitting to Zimbabwe in September, Brendan Taylor has scored two centuries at domestic level but only 85 runs in four Test innings and this is his chance to close that gap. Taylor is the highest-profile member of the line-up and as a consequence the one most expected to step up for a big occasion. For Zimbabwe, it doesn’t get much bigger than this. The squad is in awe of South Africa and know that a strong performance against them might open doors in domestic cricket here. Taylor was already due to play in the postponed T20 Global League and is the only name most of the South African squad know; he will want to keep himself foremost in their mind.

Team news

South Africa’s team balance hinges on the fitness of Faf du Plessis, who gave himself only a 60% chance of playing, on Christmas Eve. If du Plessis is able to take the field, the choice will be between him and AB de Villiers in the line-up, with Temba Bavuma likely to be retained, at least for now. Should du Plessis not be able to play, de Villiers will slot into his place, with Dean Elgar likely to lead, as he did at Lord’s. Alternatively, both du Plessis and de Villiers could be included in a lengthened line-up of seven batsmen with Andile Phehlukwayo making way. And that’s only half the story. With all four premier fast bowlers fit, South Africa also have to make a choice of which three to pick, as it is given spinner Keshav Maharaj will play. One of Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel is likely to sit out.

South Africa (probable): 1 Dean Elgar, 2 Aiden Markram, 3 Hashim Amla, 4 Temba Bavuma, 5 Faf du Plessis (capt)/AB de Villiers, 6 Quinton de Kock (wk), 7 Andile Phehlukwayo, 8 Vernon Philander, 9 Keshav Maharaj, 10 Kagiso Rabada, 11 Dale Steyn/Morne Morkel

Though Solomon Mire has yet to show all the qualities of a Test opener, Zimbabwe are likely to persist with him in the role. On paper, that gives them a strong top six with the experience of Hamilton Masakadza, Craig Ervine and Brendan Taylor surrounding the promise of Mire, PJ Moor and Sikandar Raza. With Regis Chakabva at No.7 and their attack of three frontline seamers and captain Graeme Cremer, they have the makings of a well-balanced side.

Zimbabwe (probable): 1 Hamilton Masakadza, 2 Solomon Mire, 3 Craig Ervine, 4 Brendan Taylor, 5 PJ Moor, 6 Sikandar Raza, 7 Regis Chakabva (wk), 8 Graeme Cremer (capt), 9 Kyle Jarvis, 10 Blessing Muzarabani, 11 Christopher Mpofu

Pitch and conditions

While AB de Villiers described one of the practice pitches as “spicy”, Port Elizabeth is normally known for producing slower surfaces that can be suited to spin, which is what Faf du Plessis is expecting. Zimbabwe will welcome that news because it means the surface will resemble those they play on back home, although they will remain wary of twilight conditions and extra movement from the pink ball. The weather for the entire Test is forecast to be pleasant, with temperatures in the mid-20s and no rain.

Stats and trivia

  • Dean Elgar is currently third on the Test run-scorers list for 2017. He is 43 runs behind Cheteshwar Pujara and 30 shy of Steven Smith and could use this Test to leapfrog them both.

  • Dale Steyn needs five wickets to overtake Shaun Pollock as South Africa’s leading Test wicket-taker.

  • Playing 98 overs in a day, technically makes this closer to a four-and-a-half-day Test, with 392 overs planned, 87% of a regular five-day Test’s 450 scheduled overs.

  • Zimbabwe last played a Test in South Africa more than 12 years ago, in March 2005. They have only played three Tests in the country and lost all of them by an innings.

Quotes

“The great thing for Zimbabwe cricket is the fact that they’ve got some senior players back into the team. Test cricket is now something that is a big thing for them to push forward. It’s great to see smaller countries getting an opportunity to play Test cricket.”
South Africa’s captain Faf du Plessis hopes for a brighter future for Zimbabwe.

“Obviously we haven’t played under lights a lot recently, and particularly against the pink ball, so understanding the conditions and what the pink ball does will be important for us.”
Heath Streak, Zimbabwe’s coach, explains what his team is up against.



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