Johannesburg - South Africa’s batting has operated in fits and starts this year - matching the schedule the Proteas have had to deal with in that period.
For all the criticism that has come the players’ way about consistency, it’s worth noting they haven’t actually had the opportunity to build any. The Proteas have played just five Tests in 2021, and while the batting was under scrutiny in Pakistan, particularly for the collapses that occurred on that tour, the work the coaching staff have done in that department, hasn’t had the chance to take effect.
There were ‘green shoots’ in the Caribbean, but the quality of bowling the South Africans will face in the up-coming series with India, is on a much higher level than what the West Indies were able to dish up in June.
That’s another factor - the length of time since SA last played a Test, which is six months, compared to India, who were in action, three weeks ago. Justin Sammons, the batting consultant who came on board before the T20 World Cup and will stay with the team for the duration of the season, certainly has a lot on his plate this week.
South Africa’s batters haven’t performed horribly in the limited Test match opportunities they’ve had this year, notwithstanding the fact that those batting collapses continue to hang heavy over them. While only Rassie van der Dussen, Dean Elgar and Aiden Markram have scored over 300 runs this calendar year, there are five players - that trio plus Quinton de Kock and Temba Bavuma, who are averaging above 40.
Those are reasonable returns, but the Indians certainly won’t lose sleep about being dominated by the home team’s batters.
That quintet will be vital to South Africa’s chances of winning a series, in which even though they’re playing at home, they are not favourites. Markram and Van der Dussen have performed excellently across formats in 2021, while Elgar’s recent hundred for the Titans in the domestic Four-Day series provided a much needed boost to his confidence after a spell out with injury.
Bavuma will appreciate being out of the captaincy spotlight after that challenging T20 World Cup, and although he missed the series in the West Indies, his performances in Pakistan in February, suggested, that like Markram, a corner had been turned after a difficult few years.
De Kock’s likely absence for two Tests owing to the birth of his first child, puts Kyle Verreynne in line to add to his two Test caps picked up in the Caribbean where he showed plenty of resilience in a crucial partnership in the first innings of the second Test with Elgar.
Keegan Petersen, who fills the no.3 spot is another who played both Tests in that series, and while scores of 19, 7 and 18 don’t exactly jump off the page, the body of work he built over the last few seasons domestically, which led to his selection, deserves to be backed over the next few weeks.
The series is a crucial one for Wiaan Mulder, who has yet to display his full worth as a Test batter. Runs from the no.7 spot will be extremely valuable because given the class of the Indian bowling unit, South Africa is likely to call on the depth Mulder should be providing in that position.
It will be an extremely difficult examination for the South Africans. The Indian bowlers, from their quicks, to the magnificent Ravi Ashwin, are in-form, determined and very skillful. Given the limited playing time in the Test format, combined with bringing in youngsters like Petersen and Verreynne - or even Ryan Rickelton should the selectors decide to reward his recent form - the batting unit lacks vast experience.
Whereas they could fall back on Faf du Plessis, Hashim Amla and AB de Villiers in 2018, this time only Elgar and De Kock have played more than 50 Tests.
More than at any point, arguably since the first Test series between the two countries 29 years ago, South Africa will need to scrap, be street-smart, and rely on their depth to try and force pressure on the Indian bowlers.