TELFORD VICE, Delhi
“NOW opening the batting for SA here at Kingsmead in the first test against England, Dean Elgar and … AN Other.”
Probably not. But you would be forgiven for thinking the public address announcer could say something like that on December 26.
Indeed, it tells South Africans how much Graeme Smith was worth to their team’s cause that the sight of Elgar walking out to open the batting is cause for relief.
Elgar is nuggety and dependable, a man for the trenches. But he first opened the batting for SA as recently as February last year and has been doing the job regularly only in his last 19 innings.
That’s impressive progress for someone who was SA’s “Country Districts Play of the Year” in 2005. But it doesn’t say much for the country’s depth in the hardest job in cricket.
Elgar took one step towards becoming the senior partner in SA’s opening partnership when Smith announced his retirement in the middle of the third test against Australia at Newlands in February 2014.
Eleven months later, and also in Cape Town, Elgar completed that journey when Alviro Petersen called it quits after the third test against West Indies.
Since then, Elgar has been accompanied to the middle by Stiaan van Zyl eight times and once, memorably, by Vernon Philander against India in Mohali.
Most recently, against India in Delhi, Temba Bavuma walked out with Elgar.
Elgar’s inclusion in the home side’s squad for the England series is all but assured. Who his partner at the top of the order will be is less certain.
Van Zyl averages 49.01 in his 69 first-class matches for the Cobras. That he has batted at No. 3 in most of those games is less of a factor in his average of 17.40 after six innings as an opener for SA than the other side of that coin – all six of those innings have been in the sub-continent.
Do SA go back to Van Zyl now that they will be back in their home conditions, or do they give Bavuma another opportunity?
Van Zyl’s confidence ebbed steadily in India, not least because the series’ ace bowler, Ravichandran Ashwin, dismissed him in all five his innings in the series – even in the second dig in Mohali when Van Zyl batted at No. 6 because Philander was promoted in the cause of quick runs.
Bavuma didn’t have to lug baggage like that to the middle at the Ferozeshah Kotla. Neither did he have to bat on the Mohali monster nor the Nagpur nasty: the disgraceful pitches prepared for the first and third tests.
Which partly explains why Bavuma was able to bat for four hours in Delhi. But the rest of it comes down to his skill, temperament and talent.
Bavuma scored 56 runs in his two innings – exactly the same number as Van Zyl eked out in five trips to the crease.
“I’ve certainly been taken out of my comfort zone,” Bavuma said. “I’ve been asked to fulfill a job that’s very hard and opening is not the easiest thing, but the experience has been great.”
Conditions at Kingsmead will be vastly different from the Kotla, but what are the chances of Bavuma again opening the innings with Elgar?
“The way he batted (in Delhi), he looked very solid,” Hashim Amla said.
“Stiaan hasn’t gone as well as he would have liked to. Temba is an option up the order.”
The selectors were due to meet when SA’s flight landed from India on Tuesday afternoon. That was their captain speaking.