South Africa in Australia 2012-13 November 14, 2012

Squad rethink required for South Africa

The indifferent performance in the field by South Africa at the Gabba needs to be rectified, and perhaps its time for some radical changes in the team to be made

If you weren't keeping an eye on the Gabba over the past week, you may have thought it was South Africa, not Australia, who were in with a chance of victory, such is the feel coming from their camp. They were, on the first day and in parts of the third, but squandered their chances and had to fight their way to safety.

Yet Graeme Smith does not seem overly concerned with what was his team's flattest performance of the last 12 months. He said there were times when the bowlers did not respond with fury and fire like he had become accustomed to. But he was willing to allow them an off game because "usually they rock up and perform."

What was more telling, though, was South Africa's fielding. Usually among the best in the world, it was at one of its lowest and the "unacceptable" number of no-balls had Smith shaking his head in despair.

Vernon Philander and Rory Kleinveldt were culprits on both accounts. The pair lumbered in the field, were slow to get to the ball on its way to the boundary, and fumbled regularly. They also overstepped 20 times between them, and the only redeeming feature was that unlike Morne Morke, none of their no-balls were wasted opportunities of dismissals.

Philander has yet to take a wicket on the current tour, making it his most lean period since re-entering international cricket last year. On a lifeless pitch in the Sydney warm-up match against Australia A, he was disciplined, and did not see any reward, but in Brisbane, Philander was inconsistent for the first time in his Test career. He lacked control, couldn't find any movement off the seam and his frustration was even more obvious than it was in England.

There, Philander had found many edges which did not carry and he made sure to mention it at every opportunity, even when he took five wickets at Lord's in the final innings. This time he was not even that unlucky. In response, he was often seen attempting to throw the ball at the batsman, and some of his annoyance must have spilled over onto his performance in the field.

But Philander is a proven performer, whom bowling coach Allan Donald calls the "honest businessman" for his uncomplicated approach, and he will be back with a point to prove in the next game. Kleinveldt is unlikely to get the same opportunity.

His debut will be remembered as costly and ineffective although it was not a true indicator of his ability. On the domestic circuit, he is known for his discipline, ability to extract bounce and occasional swing. Although not the most athletically built player, Kleinveldt's commitment may not often be questioned as embarrassingly as it was at the Gabba.

He will make way for the return of Imran Tahir, whom South Africa missed in Brisbane. Although they have other part-time spin options, they will probably want a frontline spinner on a track that is known to deteriorate on the last two days. Tahir's fielding has improved over the years from its status as a source of comic relief but it may not have much of an overall effect on the team.

For that, South Africa will look to someone like Faf du Plessis. The middle-order batsman is likely to replace JP Duminy in the starting XI, and will bring his Rhodes-esque reputation for diving with him. When du Plessis played at Lancashire, the county said he left a lasting legacy of athleticism, and still refer to his run-saving methods with great admiration.

Another obvious way to improve the fielding would be to put one of the world's best fielders on the park. AB de Villiers could be of more use at point or cover than he is behind the stumps and it may even have a positive effect on his batting.

Since taking over the gloves from Mark Boucher, de Villiers has been unable to convert any of the six starts he has made and may bat with more freedom when unburdened. Thami Tsolekile, an able athlete and by some distance South Africa's best wicketkeeper who is also gritty with the bat, is in Australia, and with Jacques Rudolph struggling for form, South Africa could make three changes come the second Test.

But after having attained the world No.1 ranking in England in July by not making a single alteration to their starting XI, this would represent a radical change for South Africa. "Consistency in selection," is something Smith, Gary Kirsten and many of the team, including Alviro Petersen, have talked about as one of their biggest strengths but it is only an advantage when it actually works.

In Brisbane, for the first time since Kirsten became coach, there were signs that some rethink wouldn't be out of place. South Africa have not given themselves much time to do that kind of analytical planning. The squad dispersed yesterday and their coach has gone home - all the way back to Cape Town - to spend three days with his wife and children. The rest are scattered around Australia and training will only resume on Monday.

Down time may seem fair considering the packed schedule for the rest of the summer. South Africa return home to play New Zealand and Pakistan, and will have their next break in March, having already traveled to New Zealand and England this year. Sometimes breaks can be used to fine tune, though South Africa need a healthy amount of polishing before the next Test.

To start with, the bowlers could all do with a refresher course in keeping the foot behind the line. Since the start of the England tour, the attack as a whole has bowled 65 no-balls, with Dale Steyn the only one of the frontline bowlers to not have overstepped once. The rest have been serial offenders and have only themselves to blame for that.

Whether more practice, a stern talking to or time spent concentrating on the small things will change that is something only someone like Donald can answer. But he won't be able to assess that until he sees the squad together again after the weekend and then they will have another Test to prepare for.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent