Vernon Philander could find himself in contention to play in the Champions Trophy as South Africa continue to search for a new-ball partner for Kagiso Rabada. They have been trialling Wayne Parnell, Dwaine Pretorius and Chris Morris, after Kyle Abbott signed a Kolpak deal and ended his international career, but bowling coach Charl Langeveldt admitted they have not got it quite right at the start of the innings and need a quick fix.
"It's going to be a big concern in England where you need to take wickets up front," Langeveldt said. "We always say if we get a team three down early, we've got a good chance of winning the game so we're trying a few things but we are still at the stage where we are finding who is going to be the opening partner to 'KG'. In English conditions, if it's overcast, Vernon would be the perfect guy to play. He fits our mould if we are looking for a guy with a new ball that can bowl you five overs up front. We are looking at all possibilities."
Philander last played an ODI in August 2015, five months after he was at the centre of an episode that derailed South African cricket for a summer. At the 2015 World Cup, Philander, who had struggled with a hamstring injury for parts of the tournament, was recalled for the semi-final in place of an in-form Abbott after consultations with CSA's chief executive, Haroon Lorgat. It took months for CSA to admit that the talks took place and Philander's inclusion came after the selectors were reminded to pick the team with transformation guidelines in mind.
Abbott has since revealed he considered quitting South African cricket in the immediate aftermath but gave himself another two years to see if he would find a more regular spot. He had just done that - after injuries to Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel - when it was revealed he had put pen to paper for Hampshire months before. South Africa's coach Russell Domingo said Abbott's departure came at a particularly bad time for the team, because Abbott was the leading contender to open the bowling at the Champions Trophy.
Now, it seems South Africa may go back to Philander, although not for the upcoming series against New Zealand. Philander is nursing a slight ankle impingement and, having torn ligaments in the same place in November 2015, he has been prescribed some time off in order to be ready for the Test series in New Zealand in March. He will also have a break afterwards before beginning a county stint at Sussex in preparation for the four Tests in England but could be called on for ODI duty as well.
South Africa may also consider injured young quick Lungi Ngidi, who will not make the New Zealand series because of a hip problem but should recover in time to play the domestic one-day cup and prove his worth. Langeveldt all but ruled out looking any further as he explained why neither new Test cap Duanne Olivier nor his Knights team-mate Marchant de Lange will be considered at this stage.
"Duanne is an excellent bowler," Langeveldt said. "He swings the ball and gets reward but I looked at his stats and he struggles with the white ball. It's a concern, especially in the first ten and then at the back end, he is not as good. He bowl quickly but we are looking for a guy that can mix it up, bowl slower balls and stuff like that."
Olivier has played 24 List A matches and taken 29 wickets at 24.86, while de Lange has 97 scalps at 22.91 from 50 appearances but has fallen down the queue."Marchant has always been a strike bowler but I think he is way down in the pecking order. I don't think he will be considered for the Champions Trophy," Langeveldt said.
The other option, of course, is to ask the incumbents to step up and there is some evidence that they can. Rabada and Parnell conceded 37 for 2 in the first ten overs of the first ODI against Sri Lanka before Morris and Parnell went for 56 runs and picked up two wickets in the second. Things only became more difficult from the third match when Rabada and Morris opened, with Pretorius at first change, as Sri Lanka put on 54 without loss. Then, in Cape Town, Sri Lanka's openers raced to 100 without loss as South Africa used six different bowlers in the opening Powerplay. They won all four matches against a struggling opponent but Langeveldt is still looking for improvement.
"In the first ten overs, we haven't been up to standard," he said. "I am very hard on that. I will give us a five [out of ten]. Coming back, we've showed a lot of character, especially Wayne Parnell. He bowled really good areas and he took wickets. I'd give us a seven there. Before you go to a championship, you want to be at eight or nine because the bowlers win you games."
Whether South Africa improve their score or not, they have an excellent chance of reaching the tournament as the top ranked ODI side. They are a win away from overtaking Australia and then take on third-placed New Zealand in a five-match series before three ODIs in England in the lead-up to the Champions Trophy. "We want to go into a big tournament being No. 1 in the world so we are always talking about it. The captain always says if you go in a tournament you want to be No. 1," Langeveldt said.