South Africa still haven't quite figured themselves out in international Twenty20 cricket. They have lost more often than they have won in the last two years, cycling through four captains and no less than 28 players. While Vision 2019 is taking shape, South Africa's perspective in the shortest format has perhaps been less than 20/20.
The placement of T20Is in the international schedule, too often an apparent afterthought tacked on to the end of a tour, hasn't helped in the past, but that is beginning to change. South Africa have played three three-match T20I series since the World T20 in 2016 - with just two one-off games against New Zealand and Sri Lanka - and they will now add a fourth against Zimbabwe, with the opener in East London followed by matches in Potchefstroom and Benoni.
While the format is different, the World Cup in England next year nevertheless looms on the horizon, and the upcoming games might well be seen as an audition for further white-ball honours. The tone of T20 cricket will certainly suit South Africa's general push towards sustained aggression in their one-day plans, and the hosts' batting will be bolstered by the return of Quinton de Kock and David Miller, who were both rested for the ODIs.
With Faf du Plessis back at the helm and JP Duminy included, there is a much more experienced look to the batting line-up, as well as some fresh new faces looking to break into the team. There are two potential debutants in batsmen Gihahn Cloete and Rassie van der Dussen, while Junior Dala gets another opportunity with the ball and Dane Paterson and Robbie Frylinck return after missing the trip to Sri Lanka in August.
For their part, Zimbabwe put in their best all-round performance of the tour in the third ODI, and they won't mind a change of format that should bring the teams closer together. Zimbabwe don't have much of a record to speak of in T20 cricket, but took games against formidable Pakistan and Australia sides into the last over during the tri-series in July. These upcoming matches could be their best chance to spring a surprise and secure their first T20I win in two years.
South Africa LLWLW (last five completed matches, most recent first)
In the spotlight
There are a few new names in South Africa's squad, and one that stands out is Rassie van der Dussen. Only Lendl Simmons scored more runs than him at the Global T20 Canada and van der Dussen capped a fantastic tournament with 44 in the final to help the Vancouver Knights lift the title. He clearly impressed Vancouver's coach, Donovan Miller, who also coaches St Kitts & Nevis Patriots in the CPL and took van der Dussen with him to that tournament. He has got three T20 hundreds and experience in multiple roles: opening the batting for Lions alongside Reeza Hendricks, and playing a middle-order finishing role for the Knights and the Patriots.
Solomon Mire is the only real dasher in a Zimbabwe top order composed of players who like to take their time, and whether or not he comes off could be vital to their success in a format that demands rapid scoring from the get-go. He's not had a good tour so far, with scores of 0, 2 and 7 in the ODIs, but T20 suits Mire's game. Before he was sidelined by gluteal tear in July, he had enhanced his reputation with a rapid fifty against Australia and came within one shot of becoming the first Zimbabwean to score a T20I hundred with 94 against a Pakistan attack that is one of the best in this format.
Quinton de Kock's return presents South Africa with something of a middle-order conundrum. He will replace Heinrich Klaasen as wicketkeeper, but Klaasen could retain his place purely as a batsman based on recent form. If that happens, JP Duminy could be the man to miss out. With Reeza Hendricks playing for his first-class team Lions, it is likely Gihahn Cloete will make his international debut.
South Africa (possible): 1 Quinton de Kock (wk), 2 Gihahn Cloete, 3 Faf du Plessis (capt), 4 Rassie van der Dussen, 5 JP Duminy/Heinrich Klaasen, 6 David Miller, 7 Robbie Frylinck, 8 Andile Phehlukwayo, 9 Junior Dala, 10 Lungi Ngidi, 11 Imran Tahir
Zimbabwe may well have a new opening pair for this match, with Chamu Chibhabha coming into the squad, and Tarisai Musakanda replacing Craig Ervine in the middle order. Tendai Chatara had a horrid time with the ball in the third ODI and could make way for Chris Mpofu, and Tendai Chisoro's left-arm darts should be preferred to Wellington Masakadza's.
Zimbabwe (possible): 1 Solomon Mire, 2 Chamu Chibhabha, 3 Hamilton Masakadza (capt), 4 Brendan Taylor (wk), 5 Tarisai Musakanda, 6 Sean Williams, 7 Elton Chigumbura, 8 Tendai Chisoro, 9 Brandon Mavuta, 10 Kyle Jarvis, 11 Chris Mpofu
Pitch and conditions
East London's Buffalo Park hosted nine games during last month's Africa T20 tournament, including both semi-finals and the final, won by Temba Bavuma's Gauteng side. The scores during those matches suggest decent conditions for T20 cricket, with an average first-innings score of 153. Namibia breached 200 against against Mpumalanga, and almost throughout, the top-order batsmen enjoyed themselves. Expect another good batting pitch, and a temperate, coastal evening.
Stats and trivia
- Buffalo Park has only hosted one T20I previously, in which Martin Guptill's last-ball hundred secured the tightest of wins for New Zealand
- Zimbabwe have played 40 ODIs in the last two years, but only six T20Is, with all of those coming this year.
- Over the same time period, South Africa have played fewer ODIs - 35 - but more than twice as many T20Is - 13
"There are a lot of guys in the team who are quite new. Looking at their performances at the domestic level, they're really deserving of their caps."
Andile Phehlukwayo is backing the fresh faces in South Africa's squad to carry their good form onto the international stage
Liam Brickhill is a freelance journalist based in Cape Town