South Africa's rare, better selection conundrum

Three selection questions for South Africa (2:05)

South Africa's selection will be based on two major tenets - the man who will sit out for AB de Villiers, and their transformation targets (2:05)

"Bavuma-AB; Andile-Morris; Steyn-Morkel."

Captain Faf du Plessis knows his three major choices ahead of the upcoming Test summer. Apart from the pitch, South Africa's selection of their starting XI, given that they have a full strength squad available, has been the major talking point in the lead-up to the series against India, both outside the dressing room and in it.

"As a captain it's probably the hardest selection I've had. But it's certainly much better than having three seamers injured," du Plessis said.

For much of the last two years, South Africa have grappled with having frontline fast bowlers unavailable, and have had to make do with a second-tier pack. While Vernon Philander has been through torn ankle ligaments and lower-back spasms, Morne Morkel's career was almost ended by a back issue and, more recently, a side strain. Chris Morris has also been out with a back problem while Dale Steyn has been front and centre of the injury list.

In fact, he has barely played since South Africa and India last met in India in 2015. There, Steyn suffered a groin injury ahead of the second Test. When he returned against England in Durban a month later, he sustained a shoulder injury mid-match. He briefly recovered to take on New Zealand in August 2016 but in November broke a bone in his shoulder which has kept him out since. Given his lengthy absence and subsequent lack of game time, Ottis Gibson suggested South Africa will think hard about how soon they want him to return, but du Plessis seems keen for that to be as soon as possible.

"For me, he is the best bowler in the world. He hasn't played for a while and he hasn't got the overs under his legs that he would have wanted, but facing Dale in the nets, it feels like the skill hasn't gone anywhere," du Plessis said. "He has got the same pace, and the same swing. Skills wise it's like he has just jumped back on that bicycle and is riding again."

Du Plessis toned down his enthusiasm with the same reasoning Gibson had earlier in the week: that it may make more sense to send Steyn out as part of a stronger bowling attack later in the series. "It's a possibility up on the Highveld to play four seamers," du Plessis said. "But we're still talking about what could be our strongest XI. I would like to give you a bit of insight into it but not quite yet."

The inclusion of Steyn could also depend on whether South Africa want to make room for the allrounder, which would be a choice between the incumbent Andile Phehlukwayo and Chris Morris, who last played in England. While Phehlukwayo has made an impressive start to his Test career, Morris offers pace and a reliable pair of hands in the slips or at gully. So, once again, the choice will likely depend on conditions. If that's the case, Morris could be the man to play up country at SuperSport Park and the Wanderers and Phehlukwayo more suited to Newlands.

"With the make-up of our squad now we have so many different options you can look at picking a different team for different venues. That's our thinking," du Plessis said.

But both Phehlukwayo and Morris could find themselves on the bench if South Africa opt for seven batsmen, instead of six, and decide not to choose between Temba Bavuma and AB de Villiers. Of the three decisions they must make, this one is the toughest because it is a question of choosing between proven potential and reputable experience, between a small name and a big one.

South Africa's transformation targets - which are applied over the course of a season and require the national side to field a minimum average of six players of colour of which two are black African - will also play a part in selection. If not now, then at some point over the season. In a six-batsmen strategy, if Bavuma plays, its easier to get Morris into the side; if de Villiers plays, the same applies to Phehlukwayo.

To some, it seems an absurdity that de Villiers is even in a selection debate because he is considered an automatic pick in any side. However, de Villiers took a break from the game and not even du Plessis expected he would return to Tests. As recently as the end of the England series in early August, du Plessis said he would "be surprised" to see de Villiers back in whites. Knowing the toll a heavy workload takes on de Villiers is likely to prompt South Africa to proceed with caution when it comes to their former captain.

"What's important with AB is that he is fresh and hungry to score big runs," du Plessis said. "He has had a good break. He feels mentally strong and he wants to put in big performances, so I think that's half the battle already. When you have got a high-quality player like himself, if you get the mental side of things right, he can be a good asset."

All that musing takes us no closer to knowing what South Africa will do, but du Plessis will lead them in doing it. The captain has been sidelined since October when he sustained a back injury against Bangladesh, and missed the domestic twenty-over competition and one-off Zimbabwe Test. In that time, he also had surgery on a problematic shoulder and recovered from a viral infection.

The focus on players making a comeback has not been on him, but it may as well be, because the captain wants to make plain that he is as ready as anyone to steer the ship. "I sent the Ferrari into the panel beaters, just to get fixed," du Plessis joked about himself. "It was frustrating at times because everything happened slower than I thought it would. It's 11 weeks now and I just feel now like I'm ready to play. Obviously time at home is nice, and the good thing is I didn't miss much cricket for South Africa. I'm extremely hungry to play again."