Markram v Malan ... who should be backed for Test opening slot?

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Aiden Markram (Getty Images)
Aiden Markram (Getty Images)
  • The Proteas will play two Test matches against Sri Lanka over December and January. 
  • Aiden Markram has returned to form and looks set to return to the South African top order. 
  • Pieter Malan, though, has done enough to suggest that he is also still an option.

Attention is now firmly on a three-match ODI series against world champions England, but in just three weeks' time the Proteas will begin a two-Test series against Sri Lanka

It doesn't seem like the most high-profile festive season schedule - England were the visitors over Christmas and New Year's this time, last year - but this series against the Sri Lankans is of massive importance to South Africa.

The Proteas have only just returned to international cricket for the first time since March and it is safe to say that they are on the back foot.

Comfortably outplayed in their T20 series against England to go down 3-0, the Proteas will now also enter the ODI series (starting at Newlands on Friday) as underdogs and if they do go down again, it will not be unexpected. 

Failing to beat Sri lanka in a two-Test series, however, would confirm the suspicions that South African cricket is in a worrying place.

If coach Mark Boucher is to guide the Proteas back towards being a giant of the global game, then these are the series that South Africa should always be winning. 

It is worth remembering, though, that Sri Lanka caused one of the biggest upsets in their cricketing history the last time they were in South Africa when they beat the Proteas 2-0 in February last year, winning in Durban and Port Elizabeth. 

This time, both Tests will be played on the highveld - Centurion and the Wanderers - and hopefully, from a South African point of view, spin will play less of a role. 

This will also be the dawn of a new era for South African cricket with the Proteas set to unveil a Test captain ahead of the series to replace Faf du Plessis. 

Dean Elgar, Rassie van der Dussen and Temba Bavuma appear to be the names leading that conversation and a decision is expected soon, but another selection issue facing Boucher and the brains trust is at the top of the order where Aiden Markram must surely return to the national set-up. 

Markram last played for the Proteas in the Boxing Day Test against England in 2019 before a broken finger saw him miss the remainder of the series. 

In truth, he had been struggling on that stage for a while and his Test average has dipped to 38.48 in the process. 

Considered a future leader and one of South African cricket's brightest batting prospects, Markram is now 26-years-old and is yet to dominate international cricket in the way that many believe he can. 

Somewhat surprisingly, Markram was then left out of the Proteas squads for the T20s and ODIs against England despite having featured regularly at last year's World Cup. 

Now, that selection seems to have turned into a masterstroke. 

Markram kept his head down and turned out for the Titans in the domestic 4-Day Franchise Series, and the results suggest it was the right move. 

Scores of 149, 121 and 113 in his last three Titans innings tell their own story. When Markram is in form, as was the case in the weeks leading up to the 2019 World Cup squad announcement, he is clearly a class above domestic cricket. 

Now, with South African cricket desperate to unearth match-winners, the time has surely come to back this talent for an extended run in Proteas colours once more. 

Spare a thought, though, for Pieter Malan, who Boucher turned to against England after Markram's injury. 

A player who has scrapped for everything he has been given in this game, Malan has reached a level of maturity and experience that makes him a more than valuable prospect at the top of the order. 

His return of one 50 in six innings against a class English attack might not have made for spectacular reading, but Malan certainly showed enough in that series to suggest that he belonged on the Test stage. 

Then, this week, he reminded selectors of his credentials with scores of 125 and 57 in the Cape Cobras' draw against Markram's Titans. 

It is unlikely to be enough, though, and while that would be incredibly harsh on Malan, it is also understandable. Markram, in this touch, simply can't be left out.

With Elgar South Africa's rock, the only other option would be to open with Malan and move Markram down the order to No 3 or No 4. It is a tactic that has generated some consideration in the press in the past, but a route that Boucher is unlikely to take given that all of Markram's recent successes have come at the top of the order. 

This series against Sri Lanka is an important one for Boucher as he looks to get off the mark in that format and there will be no room for sentiment in team selection. He will need to back his best. 

It is a good headache to have.

* Let us know your thoughts in the comments below. Who should open against Sri Lanka? Markram or Malan?

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