South Africa are still searching for their No. 7. Even as they have traded blows with a touring Pakistan side reinvigorated by the switch to white-ball cricket, they have looked a squad out of balance. And that's what allrounders provide: equilibrium, bridging the divide between the batsmen and the bowlers, stabilising the innings and providing extra options with the ball. In the decider of the series against Pakistan, South Africa kicked their search for an allrounder into over-drive, playing no less than three in their starting XI.
"We have to make a decision on one of the allrounders over the next six games," captain Faf du Plessis explained ahead of the series decider against Pakistan. "Time's getting a little shorter now in making sure we pick whoever that is going to be. So we're trying to see how we can fit [Wiaan Mulder] in. Obviously, balance is an important question there. Dwaine [Pretorius] has been with the squad, and Andile [Phehlukwayo] has also done relatively well."
Once Lungi Ngidi and JP Duminy are fit again, the No. 7 position will become the fulcrum of the side. After Wednesday's game, South Africa have just five ODIs before their first World Cup match in England to get it right and make up their minds.
To understand exactly what it is that South Africa are looking for, it's worth casting your mind back to the last World Cup in England 20 years ago, when Lance Klusener burned bright in both departments, averaging 140.50 with the bat and 20.58 with the ball to scoop the Player-of-the-Tournament award after he had also burned an indelible image in South Africa's cricketing consciousness in that semi-final against Australia at Edgbaston.
True, Klusener was at No. 8 or 9 in that tournament - apart from one match against England, where he scored 48 not out from No. 7 and picked up a wicket, and the Player-of-the-Match award, and another against New Zealand that featured a short, ill-fated pinch-hitting sojourn up the order. But the role he played in England is something the current side would dearly love to replicate, even if the balance of that '99 South African side was slightly different.
For starters, Klusener was hardly the only allrounder in the outfit, with Jacques Kallis ahead of him and Shaun Pollock after in that tournament. That gave Hansie Cronje's South Africa options that du Plessis' don't have. What du Plessis does have at his disposal is a trio of world-class fast bowlers in Dale Steyn (been there, bowled that), Lungi Ngidi (26 ODI wickets in his first year) and Kagiso Rabada (the bowler with all the gifts).
Fitness permitting, all three are locked in for the World Cup - and coach and captain have confirmed as much. Imran Tahir will likely fill the fourth bowler's slot and that leaves No. 7 as the crucial pivot to balance out the side. While South Africa want an allrounder there, the strength of their frontline bowling attack means that batting is the more important suit in their ideal candidate.
South Africa have a fair idea of the hopefuls. Phehlukwayo, Chris Morris, Pretorius and Mulder are all competing for one starting spot. Phehlukwayo and Pretorius, who debuted in the same game against Ireland in 2016, seem to be in pole position currently but since the last World Cup, South Africa have looked most often to Morris to fill the No. 7 position, with mixed results. In 18 games at No. 7 since 2015, Morris has managed 203 runs at an average of 16.91 and a strike rate under a run a ball.
Over the same time period, Phehlukwayo has played 12 ODIs at No. 7 and Pretorius 11, with Mulder picked five times in that position. There have been a few other circumstantial No. 7s in the last four years. As an outlier, Farhaan Behardien's average of 53.66 in the position since 2015 is boosted by four not-outs, but his part-time medium pace hardly makes him an all-round option and he is, anyway, out of the running for a World Cup spot as things stand.
Since Ottis Gibson took over as coach in 2017, Phehlukwayo has been South Africa's favoured No. 7 and the results he has achieved, particularly recently, put him at the top of the pile. At No. 7, under Gibson, Phehlukwayo averages 34 with the bat, defying the somewhat spurious idea that he's not good enough a batsman to occupy the position. Phehlukwayo staked possibly the boldest claim of all with career-best returns with both bat and ball to put South Africa 2-1 up in Durban. He had a little luck getting there, but his 127-run stand with Rassie van der Dussen - a World Cup bolter in his own right - sealed the game.
It's the sort of performance that could allow him to keep his place when Ngidi returns, as South Africa close in on their World Cup squad, and the tinkering and experimenting that has defined their approach to limited-overs cricket over the last year comes to fruition. Indeed, there has been plenty of chopping and changing in the ODIs against Pakistan, and that will likely be the case against Sri Lanka later in the summer too.
"You have to be flexible," du Plessis said. "Plans were for the three fast bowlers to be fit, and then that almost determines the rest of the balance of your team. With that change happening, we needed to be flexible.
"In the first game [against Pakistan], we played the two allrounders together. We felt we needed another bowling option. We tried that with Pato (Dane Paterson) and Beuran [Hendricks] coming in. But now it feels like your batting is a little light, because you don't have that potent bowling attack that we had in Australia. In Australia we bowled them out three times in a row on flat wickets with three attacking fast bowlers. So you have to be flexible and see what happens: who's fit, who's injured, and then you play it from there. Because if you set your mind on something, it can change quickly. One injury or something else happens, and it changes the whole balance of our squad."
Balance, ultimately, is what South Africa are after. Morris will rejoin the squad for the T20s against Pakistan, and should also get a look-in against Sri Lanka, but he has a lot of ground to make up if he is to make No. 7 his own. Mulder, likewise, needs to do something spectacular to leapfrog into the position and wickets, while they don't count quite as much as runs in the all-round combination South Africa are looking for, are still important. Morris has taken 35 in 34 ODIs for South Africa, Pretorius has 24 in 16. Phehlukwayo took his 50th and 51st in the win over Pakistan in the last ODI. Five ODIs against Sri Lanka will be the decider, but Phehlukwayo could be South Africa's lucky No. 7 at the World Cup.