A seesaw series has given South Africa two tactical issues to think about, not just before they head to Old Trafford, but also ahead of a potential 10-Test home summer.
The openers – Keeping Kuhn
Dean Elgar has had five opening partners since Alviro Petersen’s retirement in January 2014 and none of them have stuck. In the last two Test series, things have got particularly shaky with the first-wicket stand averaging 12.91 with a highest stand of 21. The decision to drop Stephen Cook and pick Heino Kuhn is being questioned, especially with young opener Aiden Markram in the squad.
All indications are that Kuhn will keep his place, perhaps even beyond the fourth Test after he received vocal support from his captain, coach and batting partner Elgar.
For Faf du Plessis, giving Kuhn an extended run is in the right thing to do because every player deserves enough of an opportunity to show what they are capable of. “It will be fair on Heino to give him the series. England is a tough place to make an impact straight away. It’s like a middle-order batsman in India, batting at five or six with the spinners in. I don’t think we should be too hard on judging him on what is a really tough series so far,” he said.
Russell Domingo blamed both conditions and the quality of the opposition for Kuhn’s struggles but acknowledged Kuhn has some weaknesses that need work. “England and South Africa are probably the hardest places to open and he’s playing against two high-quality bowlers in Broad and Anderson who have nearly 350 Test wickets between them. It’s also just his third Test match,” Domingo said. “Heino Kuhn has a fantastic record and is a great team man. He has some technical stuff he can work on but he’s earned the right to be given an opportunity to play because of the sheer weight of runs for South Africa A and the Titans. So sure it hasn’t been an ideal start, but it’s a hard job. Hopefully he can turn the corner and make a big play soon.”
Last summer Kuhn became one of only four players to score 1000 runs in a season since the start of the franchise era in 2004-5. Kuhn plays for Titans, the same franchise Elgar has been part of for the last few seasons and they have opened together since Kuhn gave up the wicketkeeping gloves and moved up the order. Elgar’s international duty means they do not bat together that often, but they know each other well enough to start performing together on the international stage, at least according to Elgar.
“Opening partnerships need to have a chemistry. You need to know where your partner’s ones are so he gets off the mark, Just to rotate strike, you need to know his strengths and weaknesses. It’s almost like you need to know his gameplans and his technique as well.” Elgar said. “When you’re playing in this country where the opposition is high class and in their own conditions, they are going to bring out the small weaknesses if you have a new combination. And that’s something I understand will happen. Hopefully in the not too distant future we will have a substantial partnership so that we can obviously solidify a pair for quite a long time.”
Team balance – a seventh specialist batsman or an allrounder
Since their tour of England in 2012, South Africa’s preferred team balance has been to play seven batsmen – one of whom is their wicketkeeper – three quicks and a spinner. At Lord’s in 2017, they discovered that left them without enough options in the attack, primarily because two of their premier pacemen – Vernon Philander and Morne Morkel – need to have their workloads managed. For Trent Bridge, South Africa replaced a batsman with an allrounder and it worked. At The Oval, it left them short in the batting department.
Now, they have to address how they want to structure their XI and it seems they will stick to the combination of six batsmen, two allrounders, two quicks and as spinner but that means the line-up need to produce bigger runs. “It’s wonderful to have an extra seamer. It could work having three seamers and a quality spinner like Keshav, but Vernon and Morne are in their 30s and we’ve had bowlers break down so much in the past that it leaves you completely shot out of the water when you’ve only got two seamers left. So it’s nice to have the four seamers,” Domingo said. “With those four seamers it puts a lot of responsibility on the top order to get runs and we haven’t managed to do that. It’s obviously a focal point for us going forward if we want to continue going that route.”
But there is also the question of who that fourth seamer is. Chris Morris is the man in the possession and perhaps the only viable option at the moment but his inconsistency is a concern. Though Morris is quick and can produce some excellent deliveries – the yorker and bouncer that dismissed Joe Root at Alastair Cook in Nottingham is a case in point – he has not been able to get a handle on controlling the movement the Duke ball can get and South Africa’s coaches are working on his discipline.
“He’s that type of bowler who bowls bad balls and in between that he bowls fantastic balls. The wickets that he has got are almost unplayable deliveries, so you’ll give a little bit to get those unplayable deliveries. Hopefully there are more of them and less of the bad stuff,” Adrian Birrell, South Africa’s assistant coach said. “But that’s him as a player. You don’t want to inhibit someone so much that his flair or x-factor go away. It’s something he’s conscious of and we are conscious of and we will work very hard.”
Morris has shown a willingness to work on his game but Domingo said, for now, he remains very much the fourth seamer, who may not be used as much but will be expected to make an impact. “In terms of his work ethic and his energy he’s been fantastic and that’s shown in his one-day performance where he seems to have become a bit more consistent. It’s only his third or fourth Test and he’s shown with the bat again today that he’s really got the potential to become a high-quality allrounder. I don’t think he’s a front-three seamer; he’s going to be your fourth seamer,” Domingo said. “His overs are always going to be niceties to have – come on, try and break a big partnership. He can’t be one of the three front seamers because of his inconsistency but it’s something to work on.”