Three big selection decisions for South Africa
South Africa have 16 days to prepare for the three-Test series against India that will be the hallmark of their summer. They came back from a drawn series in the UAE against Pakistan with some answers and a trio of questions regarding their squad, which will be picked on Wednesday. There are three crucial positions to be decided for the hosts: the additional seamer, the spinner and the No.6 batsman.
Lonwabo Tsotosbe and Wayne Parnell were both included in South Africa's Test squad against Pakistan but neither played a match. The position for the fourth seamer is likely to be a straight shootout between the two left-armers, with Tsotsobe inching ahead. He had more game time in the UAE, playing both T20s and four of the five ODIs. He topped the charts in the ODI series, taking seven wickets.
Parnell played just one match, bowled 8.5 overs and went wicketless. He was making his comeback from a six month lay-off because of a groin injury. It's for that reason that South Africa's assistant coach Vincent Barnes thinks Tsotsobe will get the nod ahead of Parnell. "I don't think Wayne is match fit so I think it would be risky playing him," Barnes told ESPNcricinfo. "He is a very talented youngster and will definitely be considered in the future but there has been no situation to judge him when he's been tired, as he will be in a Test, in the last few months."
There was talk of Parnell returning home during the tour to the UAE but when his domestic team, the Warriors, were eliminated from the MTN40 those thoughts were scrapped. The national team management thought he would benefit from more time with Barnes, particularly with making small adjustments to his action. "I've tried to get him to be a bit more upright," Barnes said. "The angle of his run-up has changed, his delivery stride has changed and he is getting late swing. He has a similar action to Mitchell Johnson and he sometimes falls away."
Parnell did not pull off the new moves as expected and from what Barnes saw in the one game Parnell played, he may need more work. "He went back to his old action and started looking the way he did when he just arrived back on the scene. It is difficult to change an action during the game, so obviously we couldn't work on it that game. He is learning about consistency with pace and swinging the ball."
On Barnes' evidence it seems Tsotsobe is a shoe-in for the role. "He bowled very well, in a high pressured environment in the UAE and the only reason he wasn't used in the Tests is because we thought the conditions weren't suited to using four pacemen. There's no reason why he shouldn't be included in the squad for India," Barnes said. Tsotsobe played as the fourth seamer during the June tour of the West Indies. However, he only took two wickets in the two matches he played. Tsotsobe has also not had much time in the domestic first-class competition. He has played one match with figures of 1 for 104.
A scan of the domestic scene shows that the Titans' Ethy Mbhalati has been the most successful this season. He lies second on the rankings, with 25 wickets. "Names like Vernon Philander, Ryan McLaren and Quinton Friend also pop up as guys who have been bowling well," said Barnes. The three are the third, fourth and fifth-highest first-class wicket-takers this season.
The top wicket-taker in the longest version of the game in the domestic season has been Imran Tahir, with 30 wickets, but with his eligibility to play for South Africa still not confirmed, the spinner role will be contested between Paul Harris and Johan Botha. "Harris has bowled in the set up before and he has done a good job, especially in a holding role and with applying pressure on one end," Barnes said. Both spinners played in Abu Dhabi because of the conditions there, but traditionally South Africa only use one spinner in a Test. Harris seems destined for that role.
Ashwell Prince and JP Duminy will contest the No.6 spot. Prince reclaimed the role against England earlier this year, after Duminy made it his own on the Australia tour in the 2008-09 season. Since then, Duminy suffered a loss of form and Prince was restored to his position in the line-up. So far, he has failed to make a strong enough statement to lay permanent claim to the position. Prince managed just 80 runs in the two Tests in the UAE and must be feeling the pressure from Duminy nipping at his heels. "It's a difficult situation because at the moment one of them is missing out. They are both in good form," Kepler Wessels, the former South Africa batting consultant, said. Duminy did not play in the Tests but performed well in the ODI series. He scored 185 runs in the five match-series at an average of 61.66.
The first Test gets underway in Centurion on December 16.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent