England in South Africa 2015-16 January 9, 2016

Steyn's return would bring a dilemma for South Africa

When Dale Steyn is fit, he plays and that is all there is to it, but there are reasons for South Africa to take a deeper consideration of the choice before them

Dale Steyn (left) and Vernon Philander have spent much of their time recently on the sidelines © Hindustan Times

If Dale Steyn is fit, he will play and that's all there is to it. He is guaranteed his place in the South African Test XI on reputation and rightly so. He is 15 wickets away from overtaking Shaun Pollock as the country's highest wicket-taker, has an average a shave over Allan Donald's and strikes fear into batsmen with nothing more than a sharp stare.

Add to that his ability to swing the ball, his pace and his accuracy and he should be part of the side every time it takes the field unless - and it seems wrong to even contemplate it - the situation demands something else.

Steyn's recent injury record (nine times in the last two-and-a-half years since the 2013 Champions Trophy) has seen him miss four of the last six Tests. South Africa have had to find a way to function without him. In India, after Steyn sustained a groin strain in the first Test, they gave him until the first morning of each subsequent Test to prove his fitness. It spoke volumes about their optimism that he might play.

At some point in those seven weeks, team management must have known the extent of Steyn's strain and the slim chances that gave him of playing at all. When that became clear, they should have ruled out of the series, as they did Vernon Philander, and sent him home to recover but he was kept in the squad. Perhaps it was so India remained wary that he could become a factor. Perhaps they are doing the same thing now - only this time they don't have to.

Without Steyn, South Africa have sufficient options, especially as they packed their squad with five other fast bowlers. Between them they have the combinations to cover for Steyn's absence and, after the Newlands' Test, all of them have proved their worth.

That will making picking a pack even trickier if Steyn is fit, so much so that maybe not even Morne Morkel is guaranteed his place.

Morkel showed glimpses of his ability to lead the attack in Nagpur, where he found reverse swing, but he has since seemed more of a background bowler, although they may not be his own doing.

At Newlands, he was under-utilised at key moments to the extent that he was not even given the second new ball. That could have been a tactical decision by Hashim Amla, the former captain, but it could also have been a reaction to Morkel's workload. After the match, coach Russell Domingo said Morkel was "in the red zone" after bowling more than he should. After playing in the last five Tests and compensating for Steyn's absence, it could mean Morkel is due a rest and, even though South Africa would not want their fortunes to rest in inexperienced hands, that may not be a bad idea.

At the Wanderers, Morkel is not South Africa's most potent weapon. Although the surface offers pace, bounce and carry, Morkel does not always get the desired results. Instead, for someone in the Morkel mould, South Africa should look to Hardus Viljoen, the Bullring's homeboy, whose first-class record there is unmatched. Viljoen has bowled just 42 balls less than Steyn at the venue, has one more wicket than Steyn and a better average. In the first two franchise games this season, Viljoen took 20 wickets at an average just over 14.

In previous seasons, Viljoen has been complemented by Chris Morris, who has since moved to the Titans. He has bowled 80 overs less than Steyn at the Wanderers and averages slightly better than Viljoen. Morris did not look the part in the first innings at Newlands but redeemed himself in the second. His yorker-length deliveries were particularly impressive and he also gives South Africa a slightly longer batting line-up.

Then there is Kagiso Rabada, whose home Test debut at Newlands was overshadowed by other events like Hashim Amla's double hundred and Temba Bavuma's maiden century. He is also familiar with Wanderers. Rabada has not even bowled half as much there as Steyn or Viljoen but he has the best average among all of them.

Compare him with Kyle Abbott, who has played about the same amount of cricket at the Wanderers as Rabada, and it is clear who the better choice is.

In conclusion, even though Abbott is no longer carrying a hamstring niggle, he would be the man to leave out whether or not Steyn is fit. But everything else is not so clear.

South Africa would probably not want to go into a must-win game with an attack as inexperienced as Viljoen-Morris-Rabada. They may consider propping it up with the addition of Morkel and leaving out the spinner, Dane Piedt, as a consequence if they do not believe the surface will require a slower bowling option but that is unlikely.

In all likelihood, Morkel will have to play and the choice will be between two of Viljoen, Morris or Rabada. If Steyn is fit, only one of those three can play and there is then the additional risk of including Steyn as well.

The last thing South Africa want is for him to break down and they have reason to be concerned that he will. Apart from the two washouts in Bangladesh, the last time Steyn got through a Test was a year ago, against West Indies.

With the series result on the line, the time might have come to look at that reality.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • sean on January 13, 2016, 13:40 GMT

    Viljoen, Morris, Morkel, Rabada... go win it boys. Piedt won't play

  • Devinderpal Singh on January 11, 2016, 15:23 GMT

    @landl47: http://www.espncricinfo.com/south-africa-v-england-2015-16/content/story/956359.html

    This cricinfo article makes reference to the guidelines in question. I am sure there are more as well. The 12th paragraph refers to Cricket South Africa's commitment, rather than obligation. Like I said before, if the best non-White players got injured, South Africa would be forced, for that period, to not commit to the guidelines as it would be too restrictive on the team's success. I'm sure Dala would clean up Hales' stumps, but he probably wouldn't be too penetrative elsewhere.

    I post my elevens, to prove whether my thoughts on the game are right or wrong, just like when I said England's most important World Cup match last year would be against Bangladesh, but crucially, not sitting on the fence, like every pundit on t.v or some online like to do, who like to sound like they know a lot, but don't want to be pressed to commit to certain events, for fear they would be proven wrong.

  • Kyle on January 11, 2016, 14:12 GMT

    BURN_ADDICT Could be good but then who bats at 3? Du Plessis is just getting back into form so his confidence wont be the greatest, before you know it we reshuffling the whole batting line up.

  • Keith Waters on January 11, 2016, 14:11 GMT

    Up at the wanderers with wet weather around there is very little point playing a specialist spinner would swap piedt for viljoen. Open with either Van Zyl or Duminy. I do think Van Zyl should be given a longer run than 3 innings at home to show what he can do. However I am one of the few admirers of JP and feel he should be given a proper go as a specialist batsman - no point batting him at 7 and expecting him to bat like a top order batsman with our tail! So my team would be Elgar Duminy/Van Zyl Amla, Faf, AB, Bavuma, De Cock, morris, Radaba, Morkel, Viljoen. This quota thing is getting in the way of everything! I understand the reasons for it and I actually do kinda agree with it. However, it shouldn't be so stringent and the selectors really should have dropped Faf last match instead of Duminy. But either way hope the Bokkes go out their and turn the series around.

  • Sen on January 11, 2016, 11:48 GMT

    @KYLEK51 Why cant Amla open? He's basically opening anyway, with Stiaan not performing. Surely thats the way to go if you drop Stiaan?

  • Frank on January 11, 2016, 11:42 GMT

    Well, with Steyn now confirmed injured...I would say Kylek51 has it about right... although you could decide to play Piedt i.s.o. JP and Abbott i.s.o. Viljoen, on personal preference... and De Kock could open if SA bat first...

  • greig on January 11, 2016, 11:04 GMT

    @TJP1000 I am not sure if you are aware of the weather there at the moment and during the Test match. Plenty of rain and thundershowers predicted, so I think going in with a spinner is wasted. However, I do prefer our attack to mostly field a spinner as it adds balance.

  • Kyle on January 11, 2016, 10:40 GMT

    De Kock cant open as he keeps wicket. Get Bavuma to open. 1.Elgar 2. Bavuma 3. Amla 4. De Villiers 5. Du Plessis 6. Duminy 7. De Kock 8. Morris 9. Rabada 10. Steyn / Viljoen 11. Morkel

    This gives us depth in batting and bowling with the cover for spin being Elgar and Duminy

  • Jed on January 11, 2016, 9:39 GMT

    TJP1000, worng if you drop Morris we stuck with the same problem in the first test and in India the top order is under pressure to score runs because of the long tail. in the first test the last 4 batsman only added 18 in the first innings and 10 in the last. Not good enough, we need A All Rounder at 7 not a bowler.

  • Tinus on January 11, 2016, 9:05 GMT

    Therefore we need to see whats available now. I was doubtful of Rabada at 1st, but he is proving me wrong. You cant play Rabada Morkel Morris ever again in the same match as they are all the same stuff. If Steyn is fit I woul drop Morris and play Piedt, Steyn, Morkel and Rabada. If Steyn is not fit include Abbott and not Viljoen or Morris as Abbott can contain while Morkel and Rabada attacks. Im sorry, but to compare domestic stats with those of Morkel and Steyn is pretty absurd amateurish of the writer.

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