SA plan on sole spinner for Pakistan Tests
If Claude Henderson, South Africa's spin consultant, had it his way, he would "absolutely," play all the slower bowlers available to him in the two Test series against Pakistan. Head coach Russell Domingo has indicated South Africa will go into the series with just one specialist spinner, likely to be Robin Peterson, but Henderson hopes the others can also play a role.
"It's going to be such a tough decision, especially if we know it will turn square, to decide who to leave out," Henderson said. Along with Peterson, South Africa have recalled Pakistani-born legspinner Imran Tahir to the squad and have the services of JP Duminy, who is set to play a bigger role with the ball.
None of them was able to extract much from the pitch during the practice match in Sharjah - one that Peterson called so flat it is "difficult to tell anything on, in terms of skill level", but Henderson said they've all been hard at work to fight for a Test spot. He was particularly pleased with the progress Tahir had made after being dropped following a dismal showing in the Adelaide Test against Australia last year, when he conceded 260 runs and did not take a wicket.
"It's great to see Imran back after a tough time. It was really brave of him to come back and perform today. He is in a good space at the moment," Henderson said. Tahir got better as the day went on but started with a spell that questioned whether he had made any progression at all. His first spell included too many full tosses and made use of too many variations, but he started to trouble the batsman towards the end of the day as he turned the ball a touch and zoned in on better lengths.
In complete contrast, Peterson needed no time to adjust and immediately did a good holding job. He was also the first bowler to take a wicket. "Robin is improving day by day, in terms of tactics and technically," Henderson said.
Duminy was also economical and created chances towards the end of the day, one just missing Asad Shafiq's outside edge, to endorse Peterson's claim that he is a "genuine wicket-taker." Duminy will likely bowl a significant number of overs in the Test series as South Africa groom him for greater things. "JP is now realising he can bowl and his challenge is now to become a good all-rounder," Henderson said.
With Duminy and Peterson likely to start, South Africa will have two slower bowling options but Peterson confirmed it remains a dream of his to play in an attack with Tahir: "I'd love to play in a Test match for South Africa with two specialist spinners. I love bowling with Imran and I think we work well together."
Despite equipping themselves adequately with spin, South Africa are being realistic about their prowess in that department. When asked to rate his spinners using Pakistan's as a yardstick, Henderson refused. "I won't compare my spinners to anyone else," Henderson said. "I look at a guy and see how he can become the best bowler he can be. I will not say go and be like Saeed Ajmal, because that is the standard."
Even Azhar Ali, the Pakistan No. 3, would not be drawn into talking about the two attacks. An expert blocker, both on the field and in the press conference, he merely said it was "difficult to say" how South Africa's spinners measure up but that it was "enjoyable batting against them." Read what you will into that.
It probably indicates what we all already know: that pace remains South Africa's strength, even on subcontinent-like surfaces. That's why what the fast bowlers ended up with may have had them questioning whether they will be able to get results on tracks on the tour.
Only Morne Morkel took a wicket while Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander were made to work hard. Peterson does not believe the way they performed today is a reflection of how they will do in the coming two weeks. "Dale and Vernon are quality bowlers and when they put on that Test cap and walk over the white line, that's something completely different," Peterson said.
The same has been said of Graeme Smith, who was the only South African in the top five not to score a half-century on the first day of the match. He will cross the boundary rope tomorrow to try and rectify that and show his readiness for next week's Test.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent