South Africa are set to field an understrength attack for next week’s blockbuster third Test against Australia, with Dale Steyn ruled out due to fitness concerns and firebrand Kagiso Rabada banned for the rest of the series.
Champion quick Steyn had been expected to be fit in time for the third Test in Cape Town but now will only be considered for the fourth Test, Cricinfo reported yesterday.
That is a major blow to the Proteas given Steyn’s wonderful Test record against Australia – 70 wickets at 27, with a blistering strike rate of 46.
However, the loss of Rabada is an even bigger issue, with the 22-year-old having bullied Australia’s batsmen in a man of the match display at Port Elizabeth.
Rarely has a quick bossed the Australians in such a manner on a pitch which didn’t greatly favour pace bowling. In the second inning, there was the rare occurrence of David Warner, one of the world’s elite express bowling players, battling to deal with a bowler’s speed.
Rabada bulldozed through Warner’s defence repeatedly as the vice-captain’s reflexes failed him.
That must have been an intimidating sight for the other Aussie batsmen, none of whom, bar captain Steve Smith, are as comfortable as Warner against extreme pace. Rabada had proven to be by far the biggest threat to the batting line-up, grabbing 15 wickets in the first two Tests.
Compounding the loss of Rabada and Steyn is the fact Vernon Philander and Morne Morkel – the nation’s two other most experienced bowlers – have combined to take just eight wickets at 37 in what has been a low-scoring series.
Morkel was dumped in favour of 21-year-old paceman Lungi Ngidi after bowling poorly for most of the first Test. At that stage it looked as though Morkel had played his final Test, having announced before this series that he would be retiring at its end.
Now, Morkel looks likely to return in place of Rabada. That greatly weakens the attack, given the comparative ease with which the Aussies played Morkel when it mattered in the first Test.
Philander, meanwhile, has been his accurate, frugal self, but has badly lacked penetration, taking just five wickets at a lofty strike rate of 92, which compares unfavourably to those of Rabada (32), Mitchell Starc (39), Josh Hazlewood (55) and Pat Cummins (55).
While the Proteas still have a fine pace attack without Rabada and Steyn, they would lack the dynamism and penetration offered by either one or both of those bowlers.
South Africa will hope Philander’s impact will swell due to his return to Cape Town, his most successful Test venue. In eight Tests at Newlands, Philander has hoarded 47 wickets at 16, including four five-wicket hauls.
He has, however, had mixed results against Australia at Newlands.
In 2011, he had one of the best matches of his career, as he took 8-78 in a big win over Australia at the venue. But the last time these nations squared off at that ground, four years ago, Philander had one of the worst games of his career, taking 1-158 as the Aussies hammered the Proteas.
The major difference between those matches was the pitch condition.
In the first of those Tests, the juicy green track perfectly suited Philander, whereas last time around he was neutered by a more parched and batting-friendly deck. It remains to be seen which type of Newlands pitch will confront the teams when they arrive at the ground next Thursday.
With Steyn and Rabada out, Australia will have the edge on a drier pitch, which leads me to think we may see the first true green seamer of the series.