After having seen their 2020 get abruptly halted by the pandemic, in March, the Proteas will take to the field for the first time in 8 months when they lock horns with the Three Lions on Friday. But lying on the other side of the welcome break is a handful of questions and healthy headaches.
The last time South Africa played T20I cricket, they were chastened without mercy, and their reputation was besmirched. In the three-match series, Australia won 2 of the 3 encounters by a combined margin of 204 runs and gifted the other to the home side, bottling a chase of 159 after coasting at 124/2 at one stage. Although they salvaged some pride back in the ODIs that followed, whitewashing the Kangaroos 3-0 to avenge the T20I humiliation, the pandemic, arguably, couldn’t have come at a better time for the Proteas. A global shutdown, it seemed, was the only way they were ever going to stop losing and for some reason, the Gods obliged.
The last three months have been a mixed bag for South African cricket - tumultuous off the field, fruitful on it. The less spoken about the former the better, and so we will keep our focus to the on-field stuff. In four days’ time, the Proteas will kick-off their jam-packed home summer with the T20Is against England. Pre-pandemic the series would have been viewed as a squash for England but the IPL, in some ways, has changed the landscape of the tour. Skipper Quinton de Kock, Kagiso Rabada and Faf du Plessis, for once, will enter a series not burnt out or charred and instead sky high on confidence, form and morale. Aiding them will be the most red-hot bowler in the world at the moment, Anrich Nortje, and so the challenge, overall, for the hosts will be to figure out how and which pieces to fit in alongside the aforementioned quartet, and where, so as to construct the best XI as the WT20, despite being a year away, edges closer.
But the challenges at hand for the side - of figuring out who the right players are - are more complex than it seems from a distance.
Quinton de Kock (captain), Temba Bavuma, Junior Dala, Faf du Plessis, Bjorn Fortuin, Beuran Hendricks, Reeza Hendricks, Heinrich Klaasen, George Linde, Keshav Maharaj, Janneman Malan, David Miller, Lungi Ngidi, Anrich Nortje, Andile Phehlukwayo, Dwaine Pretorius, Kagiso Rabada, Tabraiz Shamsi, Lutho Sipamla, Jon-Jon Smuts, Glenton Stuurman, Pite van Biljon, Rassie van der Dussen, Kyle Verreynne.
The questions and opportunities
The AB de Villiers conundrum
The suspense, and the wait that comes with it, persists. Perhaps de Villiers would have donned the Green jersey by now if it wasn’t for the pandemic but as things stand, he is still ‘retired’. This in turn activates the age-old conundrum: do South Africa now build the side without AB? They have enough personnel to proceed, yes, but none of the same quality. In an ideal world, AB plays this series and South Africa kick-start their build for WT20 2021 full-strength, but that isn’t to be. But they’ve been blistered once by the AB saga and so, pragmatically, it would be wise for them to play the best XI players they have at their best positions, not pondering too much over the ‘what if’ scenario of potentially fitting AB into the side.
Who opens with de Kock?
Temba Bavuma’s injury led South Africa to open with Rassie van der Dussen against Australia and that did not go down too well - he averaged 15.00 and struck at 103.4. Bavuma enjoyed a phenomenal run in his maiden stint as an opener against England - 123 runs in 3 inns @ 41.00 - but could South Africa, taking into account the bigger picture, be tempted to open with Faf du Plessis? In 47 T20Is, Faf has not opened the batting even once for the Proteas, but his performances in the IPL over the years, as an opener, stand as a testament to his quality up top. Bavuma has shown he can excel at No.3 - he struck 76 runs across two innings batting at No.3 against India last year - so given the sheer damage Faf and de Kock can cause up top, will the Proteas be tempted to go Faf-QDK-Temba-RVD as 1,2,3 and 4? You know, giving your best batsman the most balls and all that. Not to discount Janneman Malan, either - he, naturally, is also a front-runner given how he’s torn the Mzansi Super League down with the weight of runs.
The slugfest for the all-rounder’s spot
With four specialist bowlers - three seamers and one spinner, all of whom can barely bat - and the top six a lock, the all-rounder’s position as No.7 becomes pivotal to the side. The Proteas, of late, have looked at both Phehlukwayo and Pretorius as options yet both players have failed to provide that blanket of security with the bat; they, largely, have inspired no confidence with the bat in hand barring a once-in-a-blue-moon cameo. The duo will, yet again, have their chances come the England series but with the Proteas now seemingly having moved on from Chris Morris - he hasn’t played a game for SA since the 2019 World Cup - it might be worthwhile to also look at other options. Employing JJ Smuts - a batting all-rounder more than capable of sliding in four overs cheaply - or George Linde - a left-arm spinner more reliable with the bat than both Pretorius and Phehlukwayo - based on need and condition, at No.7, might prove to be flexible and beneficial. Smuts, as things stand, has been employed as a higher middle-order bat, but a full strength XI might provide scope to utilize him down the order.
The battle for the No.1 spinner
The mystery over Imran Tahir’s sustained absence means that the No.1 spinner’s slot is still up for grabs. Although Shamsi, for now, seems to have hold of the spot, the lack of wickets from his arm means that the left-arm trio of Fortuin, Maharaj and Linde are not far-away. All three left-armers will largely be defensive options but it might not, after all, be a bad thing for the Proteas, who already have three ultra-aggressive seamers in Rabada, Nortje and Ngidi. Going for broke with the frontline seamers while attempting to curb the scoring through the 4th and 5th bowlers could be a nifty ploy. Contrastingly, playing Linde at No.7 would give the side the luxury of playing two spinners, which would add more dynamism to a largely pace-oriented bowling unit. The skipper has a tricky call to make, but the three T20Is will give a picture as to where and how the Proteas are looking to move, vis-à-vis their spinners.