Who captains the side, what happens with Aiden Markram and who fills Vernon Philander’s all-rounder spot are questions that could be answered by strong domestic performances, writes RYAN VREDE.
The Proteas will play their first Test match at the end of December and they have numerous problems to solve prior to then.
The most urgent of those is who captains the team. In April, South Africa’s Director of Cricket Graeme Smith ruled ODI and T20 skipper, Quiton de Kock, out of the running for the position. ‘We want to keep Quinton fresh and playing well,’ Smith said. ‘I’ve always believed, having been in the job myself, that captaining all three formats is challenging. We’ve seen a number of nations trying to figure out what’s best and I think across three formats, it probably doesn’t work.’
There are a number of men in the candidate pool – Dean Elgar, Temba Bavuma, Keshav Maharaj and Markram among them. An outside bet would be Rassie van der Dussen, although it is unlikely that a team who has struggled in Test cricket in recent years will opt for a Test rookie.
I wrote on Tuesday that Elgar would be my pick on the basis of him being an experienced player who is highly respected, a relatively consistent performer and him consistently exhibiting high levels of mental resilience. This resilience will be tested should he captain the side, while his tactical IQ and game feel will also be closely examined. He strikes me as the type of man who becomes better under pressure.
He doesn’t have all of the leadership qualities Smith or Faf du Plessis did. But none of the candidates do, and in the absence of such a candidate, I’d go for someone who embodies the type of grit that has been sorely lacking in the Test side of late.
Elgar exhibited this grit by scoring a first-innings century against the Cobras despite his team being rolled for 150. It proved to be critical in the context of the result, keeping the Titans within reach (114 runs) going into the second innings. They ended up winning by two wickets.
The other candidates may strengthen their case in the upcoming rounds of the 4-Day Franchise Series, but Elgar has come out of the gate fastest. Whether he has the appetite for the job remains to be established. If he does, he would benefit from Du Plessis still being in the side. Du Plessis’ ear and eyes would be invaluable while any new skipper finds his feet.
The other major issue is who replaces the retired Philander. His loss won’t be as painful as that of Jacques Kallis, but Philander’s value with the bat can’t be overstated.
Worryingly, there isn’t a long line of potential replacements. Late last year Cricket South Africa scrambled to keep Dwaine Pretorius from signing a Kolpak deal with Nottinghamshire by offering him a national contract. In light of this, he seems the most likely replacement.
Theunis De Bruyn started the series strongly, but he is a batting allrounder who offers a limited threat with the ball. Senuran Muthusamy was used in India last year, but the Proteas are unlikely to play two spinners outside of the subcontinent. There is undoubtedly an opportunity for an outsider to force their way into the mix through domestic excellence.
Then there’s the Markram conundrum. The opener has battled with technical and mental demons, and while he is undoubtedly a huge talent, that talent hasn’t yet been matched with the requisite temperament needed to be a successful Test opener.
Pieter Malan replaced him after injury in December ruled him out of the England series. Malan scored 84 in the second innings on debut, and got a half century in the Cobras’ opening domestic fixture while Markram failed twice. It is likely that domestic form will determine which of those men faces the new ball for the Proteas in December.