The Proteas haven’t had a formidable opening pair since the days of the Graeme Smith and Herschelle Gibbs combination. But options have become available …
In fact, the South African team have struggled to find two men fit to open the batting simultaneously. Stephen Cook made a decent start to his belated run in Test cricket, but he might have been dropped sooner if there was a player consistently knocking on the door.
The pairing of Dean Elgar and Aiden Markram had shown promise, but the latter’s form dipped in 2019. Until Pieter Malan’s stoic knock in the second innings at Newlands, there was very little pressure on the pair.
Malan’s rise could mark an end to a sustained period where there was little to no pressure on the openers from within South African cricket.
The Cobras batsman is 30 years old already, but if he becomes a Test specialist, there is no reason he can’t play for another eight years or so. His 369-minute vigil at Newlands suggests he has the minerals to supplant the talented Markram at the top.
Markram now needs to go back to the drawing board to try to force his way back into the side, either as an opener or in the middle order, where some feel he may find a better fit.
While the Proteas should be eager to maintain continuity, they should avoid falling back into a familiar pattern where being dropped from the Test side is almost as hard as getting into it.
Every player in the XI should have others in and around the Test squad who could, at any moment, replace them in order to drive South Africa back to the top of the International Cricket Council Test rankings.
Further down the order, Zubayr Hamza faces competition from the likes of Keegan Petersen – and Rassie van der Dussen knows that Temba Bavuma wants to return to the XI.
On recent form, Markram is not even third in the opening pecking order considering the runs piled on by Warriors opener Eddie Moore.
Malan’s progression to the Proteas could also open the door for his brother Janneman to make a statement at the top of the order for the Cobras.
Markram will need to prove his worth again despite being earmarked as a possible future skipper of the Proteas. His leadership qualities are undeniable, but he needs to prove he can score big runs in red-ball cricket before he can be afforded another opportunity in the Test XI. His task now will be to keep the pressure on Elgar and Malan, as well as skipper Faf du Plessis.