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Van Zyl eyes opening slot

Stiaan van Zyl completes a run Getty Images

The worst kept secret in South African cricket is that Stiaan van Zyl will bat in JP Duminy's No.7 spot for South Africa in the first Test against West Indies next week. The best kept secret is that if Duminy's recovery goes according to plan and he returns for the Boxing Day fixture, van Zyl may not be relegated to the bench.

He could take up another position in the line-up - one that would seem far better suited to a man who normally bats at No. 3.

"In Zimbabwe, Russell [Domingo, South Africa's coach] had a chat with me and said the only spot that will maybe open up on performance base would be the opening spot," van Zyl said ahead of the three-day tour practice match between the South African Invitation XI and West Indies in Benoni. "If there is only a gap in the future at the top f the order, then that's what I am looking at because I think from three to seven, the squad is quite set, the only position could be in that opening spot."

Van Zyl travelled with the South African Test squad for their winter series in Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe as a reserve batsman and understood he was unlikely to get a game unless it was injury-enforced. But it was also where he was told there might be room for him at the top, following Graeme Smith's retirement and Alviro Petersen's lean run, which got leaner on the tour.

Effectively, van Zyl's revelation, which included that he move from one-drop to opening the batting for the Cobras this summer in preparation for doing the same for South Africa, has put Petersen on notice that unless his 23-innings century-less streak ends, his time could be up. The other opener, Dean Elgar, who was only installed there three Tests ago when Smith retired, has scored a century and a fifty since being placed there and should get a decent run.

Van Zyl already considers himself ready to join Elgar, after he finished last season as the first-class competition's leading run-scorer. "Last season I did very well and in about 60 percent of the games, I faced the new ball. So, I almost opened anyway," he said. "Of course, it's a a different thing if you stand in the field all day and then you've got to open because normally I've got 20 minutes or half-an-hour feet up but I think my technique and my patience and my batting is equipped for that of an opening batter."

Van Zyk also believes making his Test debut lower down the order could assist in the eventual transition he hopes to make. "Batting at six or seven could also be like opening because you could be facing the new ball. Maybe getting an opportunity there could be better than opening the batting in my first game because that's a different level of pressure," he said. "I'll walk in, maybe 400 for five now so it's a different scenario. It's probably better to start your international career in those circumstances."

The bullishness over the position he expects his team to be in comes from the knowledge of both where they are ranked - No. 1 in the world - and who their opposition are. West Indies have just come through a fractious period, marred by a payment dispute and scarred by the absence of Darren Bravo and Chris Gayle from this Test series.

Van Zyl is not alone in identifying South Africa as firm favourites, which he believes will be another factor that will work to his advantage. "Starting against West Indies with all the stuff going on and with us being the favourites - it's a home series and I know Centurion - and if I play, my mom and dad will be here, two of my friends will be here so all that support, at stuff will be in my favour," he said.

He still understands there will be a step up needed, as there always is. "In club cricket you get half a decent bowler and the other bowlers are not so good, in franchise levels, you get three good bowlers and one that you can maybe take on a little bit but now at international level, all the bowlers are great bowlers and they don't give you much," van Zyl said, before adding that being part of one of the country's most successful domestic outfits has prepared him for the quality of international cricket.

"Through all my years, I've faced a lot of Vernon Philander and Rory Kleinveldt in the nets, day in, day out - its' also international quality bowlers that you face. And if we get on the park here, I will be facing the same bowlers I will play in the first Test so I will get net practice against the guys I will play against."

Wet weather up country has threatened to wash out the second successive tour match in Benoni by a touring side, after India's game last summer could not go ahead because of heavy rains. But with or without a sighter, van Zyl hopes he will do well enough to get more than just one Test, whether it's at No.7 if Duminy remains out, or higher up.

"If Russell tells me here's three Tests for you and I'm going to play all three I'll be in a different boat," he said. "If I just play the one Test, I will be over the moon but maybe if I get two Tests, that will be put me in a different state of mind, because I know I've got four innings so I don't need to score in every innings I get."