But that philosophy may came under threat at SuperSport Park today when the first Test against the West Indies gets underway.
That’s largely due to the absence of the injured JP Duminy, which affects the balance of the Test side almost as much as the ODI outfit. An all-pace attack and seven specialist batsmen has been possible with Duminy there to bowl his tidy off-spin, but without him the options are either to have three pacemen and Robin Peterson, four quicks and no spinner save for Dean Elgar, or to go in with six specialist batsmen and play both the extra fast bowler and Peterson.
Although the seamers do traditionally bowl the bulk of the overs in Centurion, there have been occasions in the last five years when South Africa have relied heavily on spin – in both innings against Australia last season (22 and 31% of the overs bowled); in the second innings against India in 2010/11 (23%) and in both innings against England in 2009/10 (38 and 35%).
So there will be a reluctance to go into the Test, despite the rain around Gauteng on Tuesday and however grassy the pitch may be on the first day, without a specialist spinner.
“There might be a cracking blue sky at the game tomorrow so we’re not sure what our combination will be. We’ll see what happens on the day,” was all Hashim Amla, who will captain South Africa for the first time in a home Test, was willing to offer on Tuesday.
AB de Villiers was a bit more forthcoming, however.
“It’s the biggest decision management will have to make,” De Villiers said. “Centurion normally doesn’t turn that much which makes you feel that you can maybe go with that extra seamer, but with the team we are playing against, it might not be a bad idea to play a spinner. I’m pretty sure management will be tempted to play an all-pace attack though.”
For Dale Steyn, an extra batsman was important, despite the extra workload that would place on the stalwart fast bowler.
“It can be a bit sporty on day one, a bit slow, the last time we played here against Australia was crazy because it went up and down, but then in previous Tests it flattened out,” he said. “It was hard work to bowl teams out. Our batsmen were very dominant so it gave us enough time.”
The last time South Africa played the West Indies at SuperSport Park – in January 2004 – the tourists were tenderised by an opening stand of 301 between Graeme Smith and Herschelle Gibbs, followed by a Jacques Kallis century. Makhaya Ntini then took eight wickets in the match as the follow-on was enforced, resulting in a 10-wicket victory. Part-timers Smith and Jacques Rudolph were the Proteas’ spinners, bowling just 19.4 overs in the Test.
Steyn wasn’t quite laughing when he said: “I don’t think it really matters whether we play the spinner or the seamer, I think we’ll still do okay” – but the formbook and history both suggest the West Indies should be outclassed.
They are a formidable limited-overs outfit, but targeting cow-corner doesn’t often work as a strategy in Test cricket and few people will stake a fortune on the West Indies winning. One well-known bookmaker is offering odds of 1/33 that South Africa will win if there is a result in the match.
Even West Indies captain Denesh Ramdin was not sounding hugely confident on Tuesday.
“It’s going to be very challenging, we’re up against the number one team so they must be doing something very good to be on top, plus they’re at home. We need to be more consistent, especially our batting which has not been up to scratch lately. In the field we need to minimise our mistakes, not bowl so many bad balls and make sure our slip catching is up to par. If we perform well against the number one team, we should get credit for that. We will take it one step at a time and do our best,” Ramdin said.
While the West Indies are an inexperienced team with seven of their squad having played less than 10 Tests, South Africa will have just one greenhorn in action.
Stiaan van Zyl has staked his claim for a Test berth with a Sunfoil Series average of 49.57 and Amla admitted there was “a very good chance” of him playing, although he won’t bat at seven.
Let’s hope the silky strokeplay of the left-hander is employed at number six – specialist batsmen need to have the responsibility of batting in the top six – with wicketkeeper Quinton de Kock at seven.
There is speculation, however, that Van Zyl might replace Alviro Petersen at the top of the order, thereby enabling South Africa to play four pacemen and a spinner, with Vernon Philander batting at seven.
Petersen has put himself in the firing line by not exactly scoring a keg-full of runs lately, with just one half-century in his last 10 innings, and he has yet to play any four-day cricket for the Highveld Lions this season.
South Africa: Alviro Petersen, Dean Elgar, Faf du Plessis, Hashim Amla, AB de Villiers, Stiaan van Zyl, Quinton de Kock, Vernon Philander, Robin Peterson, Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel, Kyle Abbott, Temba Bavuma, Kagiso Rabada.
West Indies: Kraigg Brathwaite, Devon Smith, Leon Johnson, Marlon Samuels, Shivnarine Chanderpaul, Jason Holder, Denesh Ramdin, Jerome Taylor, Kemar Roach, Sheldon Cottrell, Sulieman Benn, Shannon Gabriel, Asad Fudadin, Jermaine Blackwood, Chadwick Walton.