Proteas will be brimful of opening-bat 'bombers'

Quinton de Kock
Quinton de Kock
Gallo Images
  • Depth in forceful openers should be one healthy feature of the national men's team this season at white-ball level.
  • Saturday's 3TC event demonstrated that most bowling bases will be well covered for the Proteas too.
  • As a team back on a gradual, upward curve, the postponement of the T20 World Cup by a year may suit them nicely.

The essentially gimmicky, unorthodox forum of "3TeamCricket" at the weekend hardly serves as a critical yardstick.

But the once-off, mid-winter exercise at SuperSport Park did fire off at least a gentle reminder: South Africa could, sooner than some realise, be back on a substantial upward trajectory as a limited-overs international force.

Perhaps the best way to look at it would be to regard the charity-driven exercise as the first broad Proteas squad "net session" of a new season... and if so, those nets were bulging with possibilities.

That's a pleasing state of affairs when arguably the country's most prized assets respectively with bat (Quinton de Kock) and ball (Kagiso Rabada) were absent from the 3TC festival.

There was the considerable distraction of the backdrop to consider as well: the cricket itself might well have taken an even greater backseat than it did to the emotionally charged Black Lives Matter theme to the day, and the necessarily tight health-and-hygiene regulations linked to the Covid-19 crisis only added to a hugely "different" atmosphere.

Somehow, though, the batch of players assembled did remember to devote sufficient energy to their day jobs, if you like: enough to suggest they will make a gallant effort to hit the ground running if the Proteas are catapulted - though it remains unlikely - into proper action more quickly than they currently imagine.

In its low-key, limited-value way, the event wasn't the worst follow-up exercise at all for the bunch of players - and some emerging additions - who ended the volatile last season in better fettle than they had begun it.

While the 2019/20 Test campaign was another unedifying one (respective drubbings from India away and England at home) and some of the white-ball fare in between erratic too, South Africa had, at least, ended the home summer with a deeply satisfying result: a 3-0 sweep of arch-foes Australia at ODI level.

Head coach Mark Boucher is going to come under a special scrutiny over the next few months given the "political" climate in SA cricket and the perception that several major hierarchical positions remain doggedly in white hands, but that result was undeniably a decent card for him to carry into a fresh season after the rockier fortunes preceding that series.

Saturday in the cool sunshine of Centurion offered confirmation that the Proteas have plenty of the necessary raw materials for a concerted charge back toward the upper echelons of the white-ball pile, whether at ODI or Twenty20 level. (The Test picture still looks a little murkier; CSA seem to be quietly de-emphasising that format anyway.)

Indeed, a crucial responsibility of Boucher and those who assist him in selection will be to pinpoint exactly the right personnel for red-letter occasions, but also to rotate players deftly enough at times to help widen their pool of thoroughly up-to-it candidates.

While just winning bilateral series as they come up will be a necessary statement of re-emergence - the Proteas are presently fourth in ODIs and fifth on the T20 ladder - there are, usefully, almost three years to go yet in painstakingly reassembling their credentials for another crack (in India) at the elusive 50-overs World Cup where they so floundered last time in England.

They also have an official reprieve of a year now, announced by the ICC on Monday, to the once seemingly more fast-looming T20 World Cup, initially scheduled for early in the next southern-hemisphere summer in Australia but pushed back 12 months due to ongoing coronavirus issues.

So there are rich developmental possibilities, in the interim, for a variety of SA customers either finding their feet already at international limited-overs level, or about to.

For a team still in relative transition, the postponement of the T20 World Cup offers a good likelihood that South Africa will be much closer to finished-article status by late 2021 than they would have been a year earlier.

Most bases seem covered: there are genuine pace bowlers who hit the wicketkeeper's gloves hard (Rabada and Anrich Nortje to the fore), any number of more fast-medium or medium-paced ones prepared to throw in multi-pronged "skills" elements, while in the spin department successors to the 41-year-old long-time strike wizard Imran Tahir are also coming to the boil.

Yes, he took a bit of tap in a second stint on Saturday (and his is a difficult art, especially coming straight out of the winter chill) but Tabraiz Shamsi looks more and more comforting as the new, consistent "mystery" factor, and Bjorn Fortuin and George Linde (the latter not in Saturday's jamboree) are additional options - both bring some lower-order value in stroke-play, as well.

But if there's one area where South Africa's short- to medium-term future looks especially bright, it is probably in relation to the first-wicket batting.

While some of the relevant swordsmen will also offer credentials for spots one or two notches further down, picking the right opening combination could become one of those "pleasant nightmares" for the brains trust.

The incumbents at T20 level are De Kock, perhaps the premier motor-man figure in the entire ranks and essential to have operating right at the outset in white-ball cricket, and Temba Bavuma.

Recognised relatively late for his credentials in the one-day arena, the latter impressed in all three T20s against England last summer and shows an average of 49.75 and strike rate 136 after five Proteas appearances in total.

On that basis, he also deserves to be considered anew - after several solid outings at No 3 - at the very top of the order in ODIs, where he and De Kock dovetail extremely well with their slightly different styles and the left-right factor.

But what, then, of Janneman Malan?

The clean-striking Cape Cobras man, after a debut golden duck at Paarl, exploded into life in game two against the Aussies with a withering 129 not out against Messrs Starc, Cummins and company in Bloemfontein, and he showed similar muscling relish for a while at Centurion during the off-season exercise on Saturday.

While a certain enigma still surrounds him statistically at international white-ball level, Aiden Markram is bound to remain fairly front-of-mind in the "flying starter" department.

His top score in ODIs remains an unremarkable 67 not out after 26 caps, but the 25-year-old is still - and rightly - acknowledged by most astute observers as a special talent and match-winner at his best; he smoked 70 runs on Saturday for biggest individual effort of the day as if to signal that he means to get it all together in 2020/21.

Meanwhile, Reeza Hendricks refuses to lie down: he has been a bit in and out of Proteas plans, and like most orthodox batsmen likes the liberty of a few overs of relative caution to begin with, but he has many of the right attributes in technique to potentially still cut it.

Don't yet write off the franchise-hardened Jon-Jon Smuts; he tends to strike the ball spiritedly at the top of the order and his last two international knocks are 41 and 84 against the Australians, even if deployed at No 3 each time.

The extra string to Smuts' bow is his slow left-arm fare, which gives the Proteas the key balance they used to have from JP Duminy - as a batsman who can serve up a disciplined "half-dose" or so of overs with the white ball just outside a frontline, five-strong attack.

There are still plenty of questions in assembling a best possible SA limited-overs team.

But at least there are also increasingly abundant answers when it comes to eager, credible candidates.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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