Markram and Phehlukwayo must repay the show of faith in them
The Proteas have most of the pieces of their World Cup puzzle in place, but there are still a few outstanding issues to iron out against Pakistan.
Coach Ottis Gibson spoke freely about the squad that he would like to take to England and Wales in four months’ time, and the five-match one-day international series against Pakistan may well make up his mind on some key positions.
Top of the agenda for the balance of the team is an attacking batsman, a position that was vacated by AB de Villiers last year. The former captain’s sudden retirement has been absorbed by the team, but his No 4 slot still hasn’t found a permanent replacement.
They are considerable shoes to fill, because De Villiers was a once-in-a-generation player. He took the game to the opposition at every turn, even against really good bowlers.
Aiden Markram has been tried in that role, but the scintillating form that he has shown in Test cricket is yet to strike in the white-ball format.
Frustratingly, the classy Titans man always looks the part when he gets to the crease. He scores at a very healthy tempo, and is very comfortable against pace.
In fact, on the recent trip to Australia, there were some truly disdainful strokes. Whenever the world champions dropped short, Markram jumped on it, and looked poised to take a game by the scruff of its neck.
And then, almost as soon as he looked set, he would disappear. It might be tolerated if something as significant as the World Cup wasn’t on the horizon, and there was time to indulge Markram’s undoubted promise. His problem is that he has set his standards very high in Test cricket, and is thus judged according to those peaks.
Accordingly, the selectors have now been convinced to go back to the franchise basket, and see what other options lurk there.
Rassie van der Dussen has been plucked, and he brings form and a cavalier sense of adventure to the crease.
Like the rest of South Africa, Gibson watched the Mzansi Super League with some interest, and the top-run scorer in the competition certainly caught the eye.
Gibson noted that Van der Dussen can bat anywhere from No 3 to No 6 in the order, and that adaptability will certainly do his prospects no harm.
The duo will both have a chance to impress now, with Quinton de Kock rested for the first two ODIs in Port Elizabeth and Durban.
Markram might have feared for his chances when he was left out of the initial squad, but De Kock’s workload in the Tests has seen him earn a late recall.
He must know that he requires at least one knock of true class to convince the selectors that he can be their man. And it has to happen immediately, because Van der Dussen also has to get a chance to stake his claim.
Further down the list, Andile Phehlukwayo has been challenged to show better judgment at the crease, and some grafting knocks for the Dolphins in the four-day format would have helped.
He seems to have the inside lane for the No 7 spot, but he too must repay the show of faith in him.
Finally, the Proteas have also rested Dale Steyn, and replaced him with Duanne Olivier for these first two matches. He might try and shrug off any public talk of the World Cup, but the Knights man is in the form of his life. After a dominant MSL campaign, and his Bone Collector turn in the Test matches, he has forced his way into World Cup reckoning.
He can’t be ignored, and Gibson will keep a keen eye on his ability to slip seamlessly into the requirements of another format.