JOHANNESBURG – In typical Faf du Plessis fashion, there was no mincing of words - Reeza Hendricks and Aiden Markram are in “a straight shootout” for a top order batting spot in the Proteas One-Day team.
Du Plessis, in explaining the new structure for the One-Day side that will form the basis for the strategy that the team will adopt at the World Cup next year, said the pair, who share 19 ODI caps between them, will have the series in Australia to finally prove their credentials.
It’s loading the inexperienced duo with a lot of pressure - but it’s well worth doing, for a World Cup is a tournament where pressure is at its highest.
Markram has certainly been tested in his short career. In his third game he was made One-Day captain against India after injuries to some senior players. That was at the start of a series which South Africa effectively tossed away as it started the now famous period of experimentation with an eye on the World Cup.
In addition, as Du Plessis outlined before the side left for Australia this week, Markram has also filled different roles since he was picked for the One-Day side. “His role has changed. When he came into the team AB (de Villiers) was still at no.4, then AB left, then we thought 4 was a position he could bat, now it looks like the best position suited to him is the top 3.”
Markram has batted at no.4 twice, making his highest score of 66 on debut in that position against Bangladesh last year.
He’s opened six times - averages 30.33 in that spot with a top score of 42. They’re not exactly imposing numbers, and as Du Plessis mentioned, Markram is unlikely to bat there when both Quinton de Kock and Hashim Amla are fit.
Amla isn’t at the moment owing to a finger injury and won’t tour Australia, meaning Markram is most likely to partner De Kock at the top of the order for the three ODIs that will be played Down Under. Markram has shown he can get good starts; he’s gone past 20 seven times, but on only one occasion made a half-century.
Hendricks has opened just once for the national team - alongside Markram - in the final match of the series against Zimbabwe, scoring 66. Since his fine century on debut in Sri Lanka, Hendricks has had a lean run notching four single figure scores until the last match of the Zimbabwe series. He will bat at no.3 against Australia.
Du Plessis also threw another ingredient into the Proteas top order mix - himself.
“I said to the coach (Ottis Gibson), 3 is a position I really enjoy, but I see where he is coming from and the benefits of having me at no 4, it’s a versatile position, you need to play a different game, and the experience in the middle order is vital,” said Du Plessis, who until his injury in Sri Lanka batted at no 4.
“We agreed to see how the combination works up until Sri Lanka. If it means me batting at 4, it’s a good opportunity for us to see what balance works best. I’m easy, I’ll bat wherever in the order. The higher the better for me, if it’s my choice, anywhere up to 4 is good.”
Whatever the mix and personnel, given the way the Proteas want to structure their starting XI for the 50-over format going forward - six frontline batsmen, a seam bowling all-rounder at no.7 and four strike bowlers - it’s vital that the top order is settled and in form.
It’s the same for most teams, but South Africa, unlike many other teams, will have a lengthier tail and in English conditions next year, it’s a very risky strategy.