South Africa are one win away from being able to declare their winter tours successful bar one ODI defeat. Victory in the T20I series will give them three trophies out of four, after they swept West Indies in the Tests, won the T20I series in a decider and shared the ODI series with Ireland. Should South Africa win the T20I series in Ireland, it will take the number of T20I series won under Mark Boucher to two out of seven, and overall number to five out 15 across formats. A win in the second of the three-match series will also leave South Africa with room to experiment in the finale, something they desperately need.
Despite there only being five more T20Is for South Africa before the T20 World Cup, they have several strategic questions to address which range from the make-up of the top five to the sixth bowling option. So far, in Ireland, they have chosen six specialist batters, a spin-bowling allrounder, three quicks and a specialist spinner, which seems a likely combination for a World Cup in the UAE but may leave their line-up a little thin. South Africa need the middle order to start stepping up and that may be the focus of the next two matches.
Ireland are at the other end of their planning timeline. They have only just made their return to the shortest format and have another seven matches before the T20 World Cup, though only two more against this opposition. No disrespect to Zimbabwe but they did not appear in the best of shape, and if Ireland want to test themselves against an obviously strong side, this is their best opportunity. They came back from the washout in the first ODI to take the series lead when they won the second and will want to spring a similar surprise to level this rubber before Saturday's finale.
(last five completed matches, most recent first)
South Africa WWLWW
In the spotlight
Simi Singh is enjoying the form of his career with a century in the final ODI and the best economy rate among the Irish bowlers in the opening T20I. It's a good time for the offspinner to be coming to the fore, with a T20 World Cup in the UAE on the horizon and Ireland's attack exhibiting a mixture of skills, including the (now) part-time spin of George Dockrell. Singh also has all the making of a strong lower-order allrounder, and adds to Ireland's power hitting. His former student, Harry Tector, who has cleared the rope with authority, is also part of the outfit.
Rassie van der Dussen played club cricket in Belfast for two years in 2014 and 2015, scored 1865 runs at an average of 81 and top-scored with 190* and he will hope some of that rubs off in his first appearance in the city since. By his standards, van der Dussen may not have had the returns he wanted on this trip, with two scores over 50 in 11 innings across formats in the West Indies and Ireland. While van der Dussen has become a stable presence in the South African line-up, there are still some concerns about his ability to score quickly and take the game away from the opposition, and he will want to dismiss those in the next two matches.
Kevin O'Brien's lack of runs is a worry for Ireland but they are more than likely to give him another run as they look to build up to the T20 World Cup. Given that Ireland have only just got back to this format, after last playing in March 2020, they will want to allow themselves some time to create continuity.
Ireland (possible): 1 Paul Stirling, 2 Kevin O'Brien, 3 Andy Balbirnie (capt), 4 Harry Tector, 5 George Dockrell, 6 Lorcan Tucker (wk), 7 Shane Getkate, 8 Simi Singh, 9 Barry McCarthy, 10 Josh Little, 11 Craig Young
South Africa went into the first T20I top heavy and included all four opening batters in their squad in the XI. Aiden Markram was their top performer at No. 4, showing the much talked about versatility they hoped they could get from him. It still leaves them a little under-staffed in the middle order but, with George Linde performing well in the allrounder role, there isn't much they can do to lengthen the line-up. Kyle Verreynne and Heinrich Klaasen are likely to remain on the bench.
South Africa (possible): 1 Quinton de Kock (wk), 2 Temba Bavuma (capt), 3 Janneman Malan, 4 Aiden Markram, 5 Rassie van der Dussen, 6 David Miller, 7 George Linde, 8 Kagiso Rabada, 9 Lizaad Williams, 10 Lung Ngidi 11 Tabraiz Shamsi
Pitch and conditions
This will be the first sight of Stormont in the series and it's set to be hot. Northern Ireland is in the midst of a heatwave with temperatures set to reach 27 degrees on Thursday. The series moves to Belfast, which last held a T20I in 2015 and has not hosted any top-eight teams, so South Africa's visit is easily the most high profile.
Stats and trivia
- Andy Balbirnie needs 33 runs to become the fifth Irish player to reach 1000 T20I runs
- Tabraiz Shamsi has enjoyed his best year as an international in 2021. He has already played more matches than in any other calendar year, taken more than double the number of wickets than in any other year and more than halves his average. He has 21 wickets at 13.28 this year, leads the T20I wicket-takers' list and has the lowest economy rate among the top 10, at 5.47
"All our bowlers were pretty good. Simi stood out with his economy rate and Josh bowled really well and Mark as well. A lot of the bowlers can take the credit. They did a really good job for us at the halfway stage and its disappointing we couldn't back them up with the bat."
Andy Balbirnie wants more from Ireland's batters after a strong bowling performance in the first T20I
Malahide's wicket was on the slower side, especially as the games went on. There was quite a lot of traffic on the square. This wicket is a lot fresher. Not too much green grass but the even grass might result in a bit more bounce. The outfield looks really quick. Hopefully in these remaining T20I games theres quite a lot of runs.
Aiden Markram hopes for a chance of pace from the pitch in the final two matches
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent