South Africa's opening batting combination could be their biggest conundrum ahead of next week's World Twenty20. They used two different pairs in their three matches against England but did not manage a stand of more than nine runs, with Richard Levi emerging as the biggest concern.
Scores of 8, 0 and 1 meant that Levi was the first man out on all three occasions and the No.3 batsman had to perform a repair job, instead of being able to build on a start. "I really feel for Richard Levi actually, he seems to have a small technical fault," Peter Kirsten, former South Africa batsman, told ESPNcricinfo. "He tends to play across the line early on and of course everyone expects him to hit boundaries every second ball."
Levi's reputation was created when he played a belligerent innings against New Zealand in Hamilton in February. His unbeaten 117 is the joint highest T20 score of all time and in reaching it, he surpassed Chris Gayle's record of the most sixes in a T20 innings.
It was a display that earned him an IPL contract and got him noticed by other T20 leagues. While it was not a display that anyone expects him to repeat, it is also one he has not come close to replicating. Since then, Levi has scored just two half-centuries in domestic twenty-over matches. In his last 10 innings, he has not managed a score higher than 39 in his last 10 innings, which included an A series against Zimbabwe and Ireland, matches for Somerset in the Friends Life t20 and South Africa's three T20Is against England. All told, his international run has been lean.
Levi's reliance on leg-side play has been noted and he is now offered deliveries that are primarily wide of offstump, where he cannot hit to his favoured area of the field. Kirsten said "bowlers have worked him out now," and Levi will have to learn to play more conventional cricket instead of his stand-and-deliver slogging. "Hashim Amla and Jacques Kallis have shown that if you play good cricket strokes, you can still score quickly," Kirsten said.
Either of those batsmen could, and did, partner Levi at the top of the order. When the squad was announced convenor of selectors Andrew Hudson had said Kallis would open the batting in light of his performances at the IPL. It would result in Amla being pushed to No. 3.
Kirsten would rather see Amla open and Kallis at No. 3. "That for me would be the right way to go," he said. The alternative is that Levi is dropped altogether and South Africa opt for a more old-school pairing in Amla and Kallis. They will then to settle on a No. 3 batsman, what Kirsten called, "the key position." AB de Villiers would be the obvious choice but Faf du Plessis, who was also in contention for a place in the top two, is another candidate.
Du Plessis came to the selectors' attention for a place in the T20 squad with his showings for the Chennai Super Kings at the IPL. He admitted that he would like to open the batting but conceded that, as a rookie in the shortest format, he would have to do as told. Now, he is not even assured of his place in the starting XI, after a torrid tour of England. Du Plessis compiled just 39 runs in six innings in the limited-overs portion of the tour and looked out of sorts.
Kirsten said while Du Plessis has to make adjustments to his game quickly, there is no urgent need for concern over him just yet. "As AB de Villiers said, he knows what Faf du Plessis can do," he said. "We've seen him clean up games, finish off games in domestic cricket. If he just plays a little bit straighter, gets those hands going through mid-off a little more, then he can fill that No. 3 spot as well."
With South Africa continuing to use the yo-yo middle-order method in shorter forms of the game - a strategy that worked for them against both Sri Lanka and New Zealand - the importance of having a fixed duo at the top is more pressing.
"Flexibility," is what Kirsten called one of South Africa's biggest strengths and it has been their way of responding to criticism about being predictable, but he also acknowledged some degree of "certainty" will be useful as they challenge for major silverware. "After all the chopping and changing, I'm sure Gary Kirsten, Andrew Hudson and AB de Villiers will know exactly who they want to pick for the first game."
South Africa's campaign begins against Zimbabwe next Thursday, before they play Sri Lanka on Saturday.