Rampant Proteas must plan for Maharaj return

Cape Town – South Africa have now won their last seven Test series at home, and the combination of coach Ottis Gibson and skipper Faf du Plessis is proving a difficult one for opposition sides to handle. 

Gibson wants his players to “take the game forward” whenever they can, and the 49-year-old West Indian admitted to the SuperSport team following the third Test against Pakistan that he was an “advocate for four-day Test cricket”. 

It is all part of an aggressive South African Test side that wants to be unbeatable in its own backyard and relies heavily on its fast bowling to make that happen. 

Duanne Olivier is the latest to add his name to that conversation.

His series return of 24 wickets is the second-best by a South African in a three-match series and the Pakistan batsmen were rattled by Olivier’s pace, bounce and aggression throughout. 

Having played in the first Test because of an injury to Vernon Philander, Olivier has quickly made himself near-indispensable. 

Despite his new-found success, Olivier remains a junior to Philander, Dale Steyn and Kagiso Rabada, and when one strings all of those names together it becomes clear why Gibson is so excited by this country’s fast bowling stocks. 

It is, quite possibly, the best seam attack doing the rounds in world cricket right now. 

That said, it might not be one that is sustainable. 

Keshav Maharaj is South Africa’s first-choice spinner in the format by some distance, but he has been sacrificed to accommodate the four above mentioned seamers. 

It was a gamble that paid off for the Proteas at Newlands and the Wanderers, but a look ahead at the Test schedule suggests that Maharaj will be back in the mix sooner rather than later. 

The World Cup is the obvious priority for South African cricket in 2019, but before then there are two more Test matches against Sri Lanka in March. 

Sri Lanka are not a side that will trouble South Africa in South Africa, but the fact that those Tests will be played in Durban and Port Elizabeth suggest that changes will need to be made to accommodate Maharaj. 

The Kingsmead wicket is not the ‘green mamba’ of years past. Like St George’s Park, it takes well to spin, and Maharaj will be expected to bowl a lot of others there, especially deep into the Test match.

On day two of the third Test against Pakistan at the Wanderers, Steyn left the field clutching his right shoulder.

Fortunately, there was nothing seriously wrong with Steyn and he was able to continue unscathed, but it was a stark reminder of the risks of going into a Test match with a seam-only attack. 

In truth, the Proteas will get away with fielding whoever they want to against Sri Lanka. 

After the World Cup, however, attention will quickly turn to a three-match tour to India that will be South Africa’s first participation in the inaugural ICC Test Championship. 

The nightmares of 2015, when South Africa were all at sea on India’s spin-friendly wickets to go down 3-0, will still be fresh for several Proteas. 

There is no way they will be able to take on the No 1-ranked side in the format in their own conditions without Maharaj playing. They might need to field a second spinner too. 

It all paints a picture of a South African side that is potentially putting all its eggs in one fast bowling basket when at home.

When Maharaj does return, probably for the Durban Test against Sri Lanka, Gibson and Du Plessis will have much to think about. 

With each passing result, Gibson’s love for his fast-bowling unit grows.  

Olivier performing the way he did against Pakistan makes him undroppable, so if Maharaj returns for a bowler that would see one of Steyn, Rabada or Philander left out. 

It is hard to see that happening. 

Maybe Gibson will decide that the Proteas can afford to go in a batsman lighter, and that would likely see Theunis de Bruyn left out for the first Sri Lanka Test. 

Either way, it is in the Proteas’ best interests to start thinking about how they can get Maharaj back into their side without ruffling too many feathers or losing the balance they have found against Pakistan. 

It is a selection conundrum that will not go away.

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