CENTURION – The decks appear to be stacked against the home team ahead of today’s second One-Day International against India at SuperSport Park.
One-nil down, with the captain out for the remainder of the six-match series, the team’s most explosive batsman out for the first half of the series, concerns over the middle order, the composition of the bowling unit and a touring team that appears to have found its mojo means a hugely challenging day awaits the Proteas in Centurion.
Aiden Markram has been given the captaincy, and would have had an interesting selection meeting yesterday afternoon with Linda Zondi, the selection convener and coach Ottis Gibson.
“Part of leadership is dealing with pressure,” Zondi yesterday.
But surely this is more pressure than anyone could have envisaged for Markram’s first go as national captain.
For all the strategising around building a team for the 2019 World Cup, and the need for experimentation in that regard, the selectors could not have foreseen the numerous challenges they would have faced in putting together a starting XI in just the second match of the series.
AB de Villiers’ absence in the middle-order left a big hole as was apparent from the way Markram, JP Duminy and David Miller crumbled in the face of India’s spinners.
Du Plessis’ absence makes that hole bigger and in addition to his new responsibilities as captain, Markram shifts to No 3 in Du Plessis’ stead.
The obvious choice would be to give Khaya Zondo a debut today, slotting him in between the two left-handers at No 5.
Farhaan Behardien is the other option available to the selectors and his form – and the extra experience he adds, given the presence of a rookie captain – would justify his selection.
But Zondi and Co will be aware of the drama that unfolded in Mumbai in 2015 when Zondo, then part of the squad, was overlooked for the final ODI, with Dean Elgar – fresh off the plane and supposedly only in India for the Test series – surprisingly included in the starting team for that series decider.
With the emphasis very much on casting the selection net wider, and giving players an opportunity with an eye on the 2019 World Cup, Zondo must be given the chance to display his wares.
There will be plenty of extra pressure on the senior players like Hashim Amla, Duminy and Miller to not only support Markram, but also increase their output with the bat.
India’s ploy of incorporating three spinners at Kingsmead appeared to catch South Africa off-guard, and the loss of Markram, Duminy and Miller for 31 runs in just eight overs was the turning point of that match.
Markram doesn’t feel it necessary to shift Amla from the top to the middle-order to help combat the threat from India’s spinners.
“Hash provides that calmness at the top of the order; he hits good cricket shots while the field is up, so he’s a massive asset for us at the top of the order.
“There is no need to adjust the batting order, but players need to develop strong game plans and then stay within those for a long period of time.”
As for the spinners at his disposal, Markram said the employment of both Imran Tahir and Tabraiz Shamsi would be dependent on conditions.
“It’s a temptation, especially having watched how well (India’s) bowlers bowled In the first ODI).”
Shamsi has form and confidence on his side at the moment, having finished as the leading wicket-taker in Momentum One-Day Cup – his 26 wickets coming at an average of 14.84 with an economy rate of 4.50.
However, it’s a long way from bowling at domestic level to bowling to the likes of Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane and Rohit Sharma.
Markram will be desperate for some early breakthroughs from his seamers, which would allow him to utilise spin – whether one or two spinners start – in a more attacking fashion.
India, since winning the final Test in Johannesburg look like a supremely confident team, with strong options in all areas.
The Proteas have gambled on giving a new captain a go with plenty stacked against him and the team.
It’s a bold approach that will test the resolve of all involved, including the team’s supporters.