Pollock and Rhodes both very concerned about South Africa's batting depth ahead of Test series opener in Brisbane
Proteas fortunes will swing with willow, say greats
A pair of Proteas legends have identified a South African batting line-up largely unproven at Test level as potentially the deciding factor in the three-Test NRMA Insurance Series against Australia that begins at the Gabba tomorrow.
Much has been made of the visitors' pace bowling, led by spearhead Kagiso Rabada along with the raw speed of Anrich Nortje and the points of difference provided by left-armer Marco Jansen and Lungi Ngidi.
But champions Jonty Rhodes and Shaun Pollock – both of whom are in Australia as commentators with Channel Seven and Fox Cricket respectively – believe it will be South Africa's batting that dictates how competitive they will be against the world's top-ranked Test team.
The Proteas might currently sit second on the World Test Championship table and have emerged successful in their past three Test tours to Australia, but they begin this campaign with a new-look line-up and one that is conspicuously lacking heavy-scoring top-order batters.
The obvious exception is skipper Dean Elgar who's posted 13 centuries from his 79 Tests stretching back to the 2012-13 tour here, but the balance of their likely top six can claim an aggregate of just five hundreds between them.
Elgar's opening partner Sarel Erwee has one, as does expected number three Rassie van der Dussen and Temba Bavuma, while Theunis de Bruyn (who played the most recent of his 12 Tests more than three years ago) has a highest score of 101, and 'keeper Kyle Verreynne's only plus-50 score is 136no.
By contrast, four of Australia's top six – Marnus Labuschagne (1), Steve Smith (2), Travis Head (7) and Usman Khawaja (8) – are currently ranked among the top 10 of the ICC's Test batter rankings.
Throw in veteran David Warner and the top five boast 80 Test centuries between them, with allrounder Cameron Green and 'keeper Alex Carey both averaging 33 while yet to produce a breakout Test hundred.
Rhodes, who was a member of the first South Africa team to tour Australia after they returned from sporting isolation in 1992, conceded the lack of proven scoring capacity was compounded by the Proteas' preferred game plan of fielding five specialist bowlers.
"The batting I'm really concerned about, because if you go through our list of batters there's just no experience Test-wise," Rhodes told cricket.com.au today ahead of his appearance in Seven's commentary box alongside the likes of Australia greats Ricky Ponting and Justin Langer.
"And even the guys who have played Tests, if you look at their profiles they are 'hard-hitting, aggressive batters' and they all average 26, so those profiles tell you a story.
"We've got the bowlers that could get us ahead, but then they need the runs on the board to work with."
Elgar declined to reveal his starting XI at today's pre-Test media conference, but indicated South Africa would stick with the blueprint they've taken into recent Tests including the last two of their ultimately unsuccessful tour to England earlier this year.
"Our bowling is our strength," he told reporters at the Gabba. "I'm pro-four fast bowlers with a spinner – Kesh (Maharaj, left-arm spinner) has been an amazing asset for our team.
"We've got to use our big fast bowlers, that's been one of our catalysts."
Pollock, who will be working as a Fox Cricket expert throughout the three-match series, believes South Africa's bowlers should not find an issue with claiming 20 Australia wickets in any given Test.
That would present a marked difference to the recent NRMA Insurance Series against West Indies who managed just 19 scalps across two matches in Perth and Adelaide.
But like his former teammate and fellow commentator Rhodes, he sees batting as the over-riding question mark although he does not take direct issue with Elgar's preferred team balance.
"It's not like it's a new strategy they will go with," Pollock told cricket.com.au today. "They've used the five bowlers a few times in the past, and instead of having the allrounder they rely on Maharaj and Jansen to contribute and play that allrounder's part.
"If you get 40 runs between the two of them, I suppose that ticks the allrounder contribution.
"But I think that's the trend worldwide.
"Australia leading up into this match have got the two Test matches under their belt, but they've also had the two injuries – two of their big players (Pat Cummins' quad and Josh Hazlewood's side strain) got injured.
"So as they've shown, there's an element of risk going into a Test with just the four bowlers not knowing whether they'll be fighting fit."
Rhodes agreed the decision to take five bowlers made sense if there was not an allrounder such as Australia's Green – who can bat in the top six as well as provide useful overs of medium-fast bowling – available for selection.
As it stands, should the Proteas abandon their strategy and opt for a sixth specialist batter it would likely be Khaya Zondo, who played in their sole warm-up game against a Cricket Australia XI at Allan Border Field last week, but whose two Tests to date have yielded just 39 runs at an average of 19.5.
"If you put another batter in, it's not like you're putting a good batter in – you're just putting in somebody that you don't know what to expect," Rhodes said.
"I'd rather get maybe 20 runs from Jansen, who can bat, rather than putting in a specialist batter when you don't know what you're going to get from them … you might just get 20 anyway, because that's what they're averaging.
"Then you have Bavuma who spends a lot of time at the crease, but that's sometimes an issue because his strike-rate is so low.
"He gets 30s and 40s – he's only got one Test hundred – and his average (34.4) is among the higher of our batters, but he just doesn't get double-hundreds because his strike-rate is under 50, so he runs out of partners.
"He doesn't take the game forward.
"You look at Marnus and 'Smithy' scoring double-hundreds for Australia, we haven't got guys who have scored double-hundreds in first-class cricket, let alone in Test cricket."
Pollock sees the lack of consistent and prolific scoring among South Africa's top six apart from Elgar – who averages almost 40 in Tests with a personal best of 199 – as an opportunity for one of the new brigade to enhance their reputations faced by one of the game's foremost challenges.
He pointed to former skipper Faf du Plessis whose debut unbeaten hundred at Adelaide Oval to save South Africa on the final day of an epic Test in 2012 saw him gain national legend status, as well as help forge the belief that has carried the Proteas to three series victories in as many visits.
"There's definitely a chance for one of them to come away with their reputation significantly enhanced," Pollock said of a batting line-up that is virtually unrecognisable from South Africa's most recent Test visit here in 2016.
"People in South Africa always respected the nature of the way cricket is played in Australia, it's normally hard and there's nothing given so if you come away having got some big scores then that's a big tick.
"And it's often the first 30 balls you need to get through here.
"But if you can manage to dodge that and get yourself settled, Australia offers very true batting conditions when the ball gets a bit softer and comes on to the bat nicely.
"So those top six batters will be looking for that, and making sure their game plans are in place."
If there is one player who might buck the trend and give the Australia bowlers something to ponder, Rhodes believes it could be keeper-batter Kyle Verreynne who – at age 25 – is also the only member of that likely top six under 30.
Having not before toured Australia nor come up against the Proteas' fierce rivals in Tests, the right-hander represents something of a 'cleanskin' who could not only take the game to the opposition but give his team momentum which they know from experience is key in Australia.
"He takes the game forward, and he's brave enough and maybe with a bit of youth on his side – he's never been here before, and never played against Australia – he plays with a lot more freedom than quite a few of the other guys," Rhodes said.
"As a keeper-batter, you've almost got that allrounder role, with a second string to the bow of his main skill so he's perhaps not under as much pressure to score runs.
"A bit like (former keeper Quinton) de Kock, he's a bit more fluid in his batting and he can win you sessions.
"A lot of our batters are older guys, it's not like they're youngsters, but they just don't have a lot of Test experience.
"The danger with that is you look at their first-class records, and they're not 40-plus, they're high 30s with their first-class averages.
"And that can be the difference in posting scores of 250 or 270 in your first innings, as opposed to 350 onwards which is what Australia always look to do."
Men's NRMA Insurance Test Series v South Africa
Dec 17-21: First Test, Gabba, 11.20am AEDT
Dec 26-30: Second Test, MCG, 10.30am AEDT
Jan 4-8: Third Test, SCG, 10.30am AEDT
Australia squad: Pat Cummins (c), Scott Boland, Alex Carey, Cameron Green, Marcus Harris, Josh Hazlewood, Travis Head, Usman Khawaja, Marnus Labuschagne, Lance Morris, Nathan Lyon, Steve Smith, Mitchell Starc, David Warner
South Africa squad: Dean Elgar (c), Temba Bavuma, Gerald Coetzee, Theunis de Bruyn, Sarel Eree, Simon Harmer, Marco Jansen, Keshav Maharaj, Heinrich Klaasen, Lungi Ngidi, Anrich Nortje, Kagiso Rabada, Rassie van der Dussen, Kyle Verreynne, Lizaad Williams, Khaya Zondo
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