The current South African Test team, as well as being the best in the world, is also one of the most balanced and adaptable. In their current eleven player line-up, they have seven frontline batsmen, and five frontline bowlers. Add Robin Peterson averaging 24.61 batting at number eight, and JP Duminy’s useful off-spin, and you have a team that bats to eight (nine if you include Philander), and has six useful bowlers (seven if you include Faf du Plessis… I don’t).
The one gap though, is a quality spinner. They’ve tried a fair few, and the last genuinely attacking spinner to make an impact was the frog-in-a-blender chinaman bowler Paul Adams, who played his last Test in 2004. Since then, they’ve tried Nicky Boje, Johan Botha, Paul Harris, and Robin Peterson, without major success.
They were mostly holding spinners, trying to secure an end, whilst the seamers rotated and looked for wickets at the other end. In 2011, South Africa had identified the missing piece of the jigsaw in their quest for the number one Test ranking; Imran Tahir, the Pakistan born journeyman leg-spinner, had completed his residency period, and was selected against Australia.
Tahir had a steady start to his Test career, averaging in the high thirties in his first three series, before a worse series against England left him under a little pressure for the trip to Australia. In the end, he only played one match on that tour, bowling 37 overs, 0-260, conceding 7.02 runs an over. That was his last Test for South Africa to date.
Since then, Robin Peterson has got the nod for the spinner’s berth. He’s been reasonable but not exceptional, taking 17 wickets at 34.58, but oddly, his strike-rate and economy rate are the reverse of what you would expect from a player stereotyped as steady. He’s conceded runs at 3.48 an over, but taken wickets at a strike rate of 59.4, comparable to the cream of modern finger-spinners, such as Graeme Swann and Rangana Herath.
What this suggests to me is that he’s picked up wickets by bowling an easily playable brand of spin which allows batsmen to pick him off comfortable, but which eventually lulls them into a false sense of security from which they make a mistake.
That is the opposite to how the best current spinners operate. The likes of Swann and Ajmal portray a constant sense of danger, forcing batsmen to play tentatively, leaving them the chance to probe away, find a weakness, and strike. Neither bowler spins the ball extravagantly constantly, but there is always the threat of one spitting and turning that keeps the batsman honest. Peterson doesn’t do that.
For all his faults, Tahir has one big virtue. If he manages to land the ball consistently, the knowledge that he has a googly forces batsmen to be careful, and if he uses it sparingly it becomes a big weapon, as a ball in itself, and in the seeds of doubt it can sow in the batsman's minds.
In his Test career so far, Tahir hasn’t yet had a chance to bowl on a subcontinental pitch. South Africa would have undoubtedly thought about using two spinners on this Abu Dhabi pitch, but in the end they plumped for just Peterson, with backup from JP Duminy.
That combination found it tough on the second day of the match. After Ajmal and Babar had combined for five first innings wickets, they would have hoped for more than 38 overs, 1-118, as they were picked off with sweeps, the occasional hit down the ground and constant singles.
Duminy found little turn, but was generally accurate, and picked up the wicket of Shan Masood, LBW trying to play across the line. Peterson however dropped short way too frequently and was picked off at will. He got a little spin early on to the left hander Masood, but to the right-handers he threatened very little
It’s hard to imagine Tahir would have done much worse, Peterson seemed to be bowling to contain, but doing it badly. If Tahir had been included as well, he could have attacked at one end and given Peterson a bit more leeway at the other.
If Tahir had been given the sole spinner’s berth, he could have been used in shortish attacking burts if he was expensive, but longer spells if he was frugal, and always told to go for wickets. Duminy could have performed the holding spinner role, with Kallis and Philander holding seamer roles, leaving Morkel and Steyn for short menacing spells. That gives you a six man attack, three attacking, three defending.
Alas, South Africa tried desperately to get Peterson into a consistent spell, but spells of 2-0-11-0, 5-0-21-0, 3-1-3-0, 2-0-8-0, 4-0-18-0 and 2-0-8-0 didn’t give him that much of a chance. Those aren’t necessarily bad spells for an attacking bowler like Tahir, but for a bowler who seems to thrive on rhythm like Peterson, it left him betwixt and between, without the skill to attack in short spells, and not getting long enough spells to settle into some consistency.
Perhaps South Africa had too many bowling options. With Duminy playing a large part, and Kallis getting some overs, seven bowlers shared 84 overs. But here’s the kicker, the two best bowlers today, the consistently threatening and parsimonious Morkel and Philander, would be the most likely to be left out of the team to play a second spinner. The other option is to drop Duminy or du Plessis, but seven is a bit too high to bat Peterson. The only way to sneak Tahir into the team for the next test is to drop Peterson. That might be what’s required.