One of South Africa’s strengths over the last few years has been their consistency in selection in Tests. Even when players have looked a touch out of form, they have often been given the chance to prove that they’ve not lost their touch. They have been given time to come back and make a statement.
Many players have repaid the faith of the selectors by getting runs when they matter most, but at some point, the faith will run out.
Alviro Petersen is one of those who have been given time and who has made a comeback time and time again.
After a hundred on debut against India back in 2010, he struggled for a 16 innings before scoring his second hundred, managing just two fifties in between that. A hundred against Sri Lanka ensured that he would retain his place and, just two Tests later, he scored another ton away against New Zealand in Wellington.
One match after that, he scored a statement ton away against England at Headingley, with 182 at the top of the order, South Africa's only hundred of the match.
Since then, though, he has had mixed fortunes. There has been just one hundred and five fifties in that time period, and his average for that same period is just 28.30. Since his last hundred, against New Zealand in Cape Town in 2013, he has scored just three fifties and has managed to pass 30 just seven times. In fact, getting out in the 30s is a mark of his innings as of late.
It happened again against Zimbabwe on Sunday. After looking relatively untroubled and on course to regain some of his form, Petersen got to 32, attempted a paddle sweep and was dismissed thanks to a crafty catch from Zim's keeper, Richmond Mutumbami. Any young player playing that shot would be forgiven for simply being a bit foolish, but a player in Petersen’s case will be lambasted—and he was.
Despite his failures, though, Petersen is still South Africa’s fifth-highest run scorer since January 2013.
|South Africa's top run scorers in Tests from January 2013|
|AB de Villiers||15||24||1402||164||60.95||5||7|
|F du Plessis||15||23||935||137||44.52||2||4|
There has been a core of consistent players in the middle order, which has allowed his top-order failures to be masked. With Hashim Amla, Faf du Plessis and AB de Villiers contributing the bulk of South Africa’s runs over the last months, Petersen’s failures have not be as stark as they perhaps are in context.
While openers do have a tough job, especially when facing up to the new ball, they should still provide the base from which the team can build. Compare the record of South Africa’s openers over the past few months to that of Australia, England and even Sri Lanka, and it is quite evident that there is a weakness at the top.
|Most runs as an opener since January 2013 (all teams)|
|DA Warner (Aus)||16||30||1456||145||50.2||5|
|AN Cook (Eng)||21||39||1227||130||32.28||2|
|CJL Rogers (Aus)||13||25||1011||119||40.44||4|
|JK Silva (SL)||10||18||812||139||45.11||1|
|FDM Karunaratne (SL)||10||19||591||85||32.83||0|
Even England’s struggling Alastair Cook has managed to maintain a decent average in this time period (albeit having played more games). With Graeme Smith retiring suddenly earlier in the year, it is perhaps understandable that South Africa have persisted with Petersen until now.
Sri Lanka was going to be a tough tour and, perhaps, they simply did not want so many changes in such unfamiliar territory. But after getting out unnecessarily in three consecutive Tests, it might finally be time for Petersen to go.
South Africa’s next Test series is on home soil against the West Indies. There is no better time to try out a better opener than in that series. There are a few options for the Proteas.
Stiaan van Zyl has been in the squad since the Sri Lanka tour and was the top run scorer in domestic four-day cricket last season. Although he does not open in the longest format of the game, he does do so in limited overs and can easily transition into the role.
Alternatively, Du Plessis or Quinton de Kock could open. De Kock is a natural opener, but the added weight of keeping wicket might make this a tricky option.
If Petersen was a younger player, many would be more gracious with their calls for his head. But at 33 years old and with a wealth of young talent waiting in the wings, it might be time to cut him loose once and for all.