SA Cricket magazine editor RYAN VREDE looks at five key issues facing the Proteas as they prepare to battle Pakistan in a two-Test series.
1. Aiden Markram’s form in the sub-continent
Markram averages just 10.50 across eight innings on the sub-continent – this includes three ducks.
There are many highly competent South African players who’ve struggled to score runs there, so this isn’t a problem unique to Markram. However, Markram finds himself in an ongoing battle to repay the selectors’ faith in him.
Despite a good showing in the first innings of the first Test against Sri Lanka at SuperSport Park in December 2020, and a solid contribution in chasing a low target at the Wanderers in the next Test, Markram won’t feel he has established himself as Dean Elgar’s partner.
The Proteas have traditionally done well when they’ve had an established opening pair, and Markram will need to exhibit high degrees of skill and temperament to earn himself a respite from the spotlight. Batting at the top of the order in Pakistan could benefit him, given that the wickets have generally been flatter than most in the sub-continent, and early swing less of an issue. How he negotiates the spin of Yasir Shah and co will define his success.
Furthermore, Markram has been in the conversation as the long-term successor to skipper Quinton de Kock. Prior to the Sri Lanka series, he claimed his focus was entirely on firming up his place in the Test squad. However, if he privately has designs on the captaincy, he will have to advance his case through a sheer weight of runs.
2. Quinton de Kock’s form. Period.
This is the sequence of De Kock’s most recent scores for the Proteas across all formats: 30, 30, 17, 18 and 10. He hasn’t scored a Test century since October 2019, which translates into 15 innings. Given his immense talent, that just isn’t good enough.
De Kock has played two teams from the sub-continent – India and Sri Lanka – in their backyard, scoring a combined 209 runs in 10 innings for an average of 20.90. That won’t be nearly enough if he hopes to inspire his team to victory over Pakistan.
I’ve written extensively that burdening De Kock with the captaincy compromises the collective. He has never looked a natural in the role, and has said, numerous times, that he doesn’t want the job beyond the end of the South African summer.
Being restricted to a bio-secure bubble is adding to his mental anguish. De Kock, who is known to love the outdoors, has regularly lamented bubble life. He did so most recently on arrival in Pakistan once again. ‘But the rooms look quite nice, at least,’ he told the media, in what was the only positive he could find when describing the heavily restricted tour.
Most international cricketers are facing the same challenge, but not many (if any) are negotiating the other issues De Kock is – personal form, tactical considerations, leading a team in transition among them – which compound his situation.
3. Can Faf du Plessis carry the Proteas?
Faf du Plessis has always been an important batsman for the Proteas, but at this stage of his career he is the most important.
Du Plessis spent a large chunk of his career in a team comprised of some of the greatest batters in Test history – Graeme Smith, Jacques Kallis, AB de Villiers and Hashim Amla among them. Now he and, to a lesser extent Dean Elgar, stand apart as the only truly world-class top-order batsmen in the Protea’ lineup.
He is acutely aware of his importance in this context, and showed glimpses of how seriously he takes that responsibility by scoring a match-defining 199 against Sri Lanka at SuperSport Park in the first Test of that series.
And while many of the Proteas batters become accustomed to the demands of Test cricket, and others battle to arrest their inconsistent form, Du Plessis will continue to be the fulcrum around which the Proteas batting challenge revolves.
That brings with it considerable pressure. Du Plessis said on Saturday that he has made the conscious effort to be enjoy his cricket. That enjoyment has been at the heart of consistently good form dating back to the IPL in mid-2020 and sustaining since.
The Proteas desperately need him to continue to enjoy the relatively unfamiliar challenge of carrying the team on his shoulders.
4. Do the Proteas play two spinners?
When you read this, it is likely the Proteas would still not have seen the Karachi pitch. Pakistan has historically been the least spin-friendly of the wickets on the sub-continent, but Du Plessis predicted that this would change and that spin would play a significant role in the series.
This raises the question of whether the Proteas will go with two frontline spinners. If they go this route, Keshav Maharaj will be one of them. The selectors will then have to decide between George Linde and Tabraiz Shamsi.
Linde’s batting is likely to edge him ahead of Shamsi. But that means they’ll have to either drop an all-rounder (Wiaan Mulder) or one of the three fast bowlers used in the Sri Lanka series.
I suspect it will be the latter. However, transformation guidelines mean that if Linde is picked as a fast bowler, Anrich Nortje most likely will miss out. Nortje was excellent against Sri Lanka, finishing as the series’ highest wicket-taker and showing the type of endurance that will be critical in the heat and humidity they’ll encounter in Pakistan.
5. Can the rookies in the seam attack get the ball to reverse?
Reverse swing has shaped Tests in the sub-continent for years. The Proteas have boasted some expert exponents of the craft, Dale Steyn arguably the best of the lot since readmission.
Kagiso Rabada has exhibited the skill, but he is the only seamer in the squad who has played Test cricket on the sub-continent. Anrich Nortje’s speed, combined with a reversing ball, could be a boon for the Proteas, but beyond him there is more hope than certainty.
Whether whoever plays between Wiaan Mulder, Lutho Sipamla, Lungi Ngidi and Beuran Hendricks can generate the requisite reverse to support Rabada and Nortje, remains to be seen.