• Proteas openers the weak link

    The Proteas’ opening pair of Dean Elgar and Aiden Markram is, on paper, a solid partnership, with Elgar averaging 38.77 in Tests and Markram 43.80. However, their recent form has seen them box far below their potential, writes SIMON LEWIS.

    The opening pair of Elgar and Markram have appeared rock solid since their early days as a Proteas partnership back in 2017. Team-mates at the Titans, the pair have formed part of a solid core of Titans players in the Proteas’ red and white ball squads, along with skipper Faf du Plessis, Quinton de Kock, Theunis de Bruyn, Chris Morris, Tabraiz Shamsi, Heinrich Klaasen, Junior Dala, Lungi Ngidi and Dale Steyn.

    In their first three Tests together (also the first three Tests of Markram’s career), both batsmen scored two centuries, and Markram added an additional score of 97, which came in his first innings. These three Tests were at home against Bangladesh and Zimbabwe late in 2017.

    In early 2018, Markram added two centuries and two half-centuries in the home series against India and Australia, while Elgar added a century and three half-centuries (including an 86 not out) in those two series as the opening partnership grew in stature against better-ranked opposition.

    With South Africa winning all four of those series, the opening pair were the toast of the town. Since then (and following the retirement of AB de Villiers), the Proteas batting has floundered. Ironically, this has been in three Test series against Sri Lanka and Pakistan, ranked sixth and seventh respectively in the ICC Test team rankings.

    (in preferred batting spots)

    Temba Bavuma 376 runs 62.66 average
    Quinton de Kock 481 runs 53.44 average
    Faf du Plessis 313 runs 39.13 average
    Hashim Amla 252 runs 36.00 average
    Aiden Markram 318 runs 35.33 average
    Dean Elgar 147 runs 18.37 average

    The formerly rock-solid opening partnership now presents the two lowest averages in the Proteas’ top-order. Even more telling is that the third-lowest average is that of the Proteas’ number three batsman, Hashim Amla. This statistic perhaps highlights the current problem facing the Proteas batting line-up.

    Aside from lacking that marque player (AB de Villiers) who can dominate an innings, the Proteas have been getting off to bad starts to their innings over the past eight months. This is putting added pressure on Hashim Amla. No number three batsman likes coming in to bat early, but Hashim is doing so regularly at the moment, and this could be contributing to his own struggles with the bat.

    With Amla also tending to lose his wicket early, batsman four to six are being fast-tracked into the innings, which seems to be having a dreadful effect on the team’s confidence.

    Since the tour to Sri Lanka, this has been the form of the Proteas’ opening batsmen.

    Proteas openers since first Test against Sri Lanka, Galle, 2018

    Dean Elgar Aiden Markram
    8 0
    4 19
    0 7
    37 14
    22 12
    50 0
    20 78
    24 not out DNB
    5 90
    5 21
    0 11
    35 28
    6 60
    2 18
    218 Total runs 358
    16.77 Average 27.53

    These are not the batting figures you would want or expect from the number two ranked Test side playing against Sri Lanka (ranked sixth) and Pakistan (ranked seventh). However, since these series, South Africa has now dropped down into third spot on the rankings.

    Aiden Markram and Dean Elgar

    There are three solutions I can see to this problem.

    1) Drop one or both of these openers.

    2) Change the tactics or mindset away from Positive Cricket to Occupation of the Crease, in order to see off the new ball.

    3) Move Markram into the number four position and bring in an uncapped opening batsman who has done well in the 4-Day Franchise Series to team up with Elgar to try and build a slow and steady start to the innings.

    Proteas’ recent opening partnerships
    Dean Elgar and Aiden Markram (July 2018-February 2018)

    1st inns – runs balls 2nd inns – runs
    1 16 12 36
    1 8 23 49
    19 36 0 8
    56 71 DNB
    6 10 24 25
    0 10 36 60
    15 33 10 32
    98 runs 184 105 runs 210
    Ave 14.0 runs Ave 26 balls Ave 17.5 runs Ave 35 balls

    The pair have a terrible track record in the first innings since July 2018, and have not yet added 100 runs in total during that time period. A bad start to the first innings sets the tone for the rest of the Test and, on average, Hashim Amla is walking to the crease inside the first four overs. Four of those seven first innings Amla has been at the crease inside the first four overs.

    In the second inning, the pair have fared marginally better, but their form is clearly not helping the Proteas to recover post-AB.

    At the post-match press conference at the end of the second Test against Sri Lanka, Proteas skipper Faf du Plessis took pains to highlight Elgar’s class and ability as an opener so, clearly, his Titans team-mate’s place in the Proteas side is seen as somewhat secure. Considering that analysis, Markram’s place in the side should also be viewed as secure for the foreseeable future – after all, his recent Test average is almost double that of Elgar’s.

    Hopefully, then, the Proteas selectors will be considering one of the two other options – either changing the mindset of the opening partnership or shifting Markram down the order (the new batsman can be brought in to replace one of the five bowlers in the side).

    It would be hard to imagine the Proteas Brains Trust being willing to risk continuing with the status quo in Test cricket, especially with so many talented opening batsman making big runs in 4-Day and 3-Day cricket.

    Photos: Tharaka Basnayaka/NurPhoto via Getty Images (main) and Ashley Vlotman/Gallo Images/Getty Images

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    Simon Lewis