Dale Steyn is set to play his first ODI since October 2016, and with the World Cup just over eight months away, South Africa coach Ottis Gibson has reckoned the quick will add value to his squad as a mentor.
"With his experience, [he's a natural mentor] anyway because that's the kind of guy he is," Gibson said four days before the start of the ODI series against Zimbabwe. "He's talking to the guys around the group, and to have his experience there, whether he plays or not, [is great]. There's nothing to say he'll play every game, but to have him in and around the dressing room and the nets passing on his experience can only be a good thing for the guys.
"Once Dale is fit, to me he's still one of the best two bowlers in the country, other than KG [Kagiso Rabada]. And he's gone away and he's proven his fitness, so he comes back and we'll see how he goes in the next couple of games.
"He's someone who's still clearly very passionate about playing for his country, and we'll make an assessment on Dale in this series and the next against Australia, the next six games, and we'll see how we go forward from there."
How Steyn fits into a team that already contains both Kagiso Rabada and Lungi Ngidi is just one of the conundrums facing South Africa as they brace for the World Cup next year. Their ODI against Zimbabwe this weekend marks the first of 16 that South Africa will play before their World Cup opener against England at The Oval on May 30, 2019 and the upcoming games against Zimbabwe - and possibly those which follow against Pakistan - will likely be South Africa's last chance to test new players and combinations before they settle on their World Cup hopefuls, Gibson hinted.
"Every person that gets an opportunity now will know that there will be less and less opportunities going forward, so you have to make every opportunity you get count at this stage," he said.
"We've looked at some guys, and this series and the next one to my mind - and I've spoken to the selectors about it already - are probably the last sort of opportunities to see guys we've discussed but haven't had the opportunity to see yet. I think by the time we get into the Pakistan and certainly the Sri Lanka series in the new year, that we'll be looking to pick the team that we think is most likely to be the team that goes to the World Cup. So this is an opportunity to look at one or two other players."
With Faf du Plessis and Hashim Amla injured and Quinton de Kock and David Miller rested, the most obvious positions South Africa might be looking to experiment in are in their top and middle order. Heinrich Klaasen and Dean Elgar have played just six ODIs each, while Christiaan Jonker has just a solitary T20I to his name. They are largely untested options, though Gibson sees plenty of potential in Jonker and a "like for like" replacement for Amla in Elgar.
"When you look at this squad that we have right now, Faf is missing, Quinny is missing, Hash is missing, and there's no real seniors," Gibson said. "Dean is a like-for-like swap for Hash. Again you think about the World Cup, and this is thinking a little further ahead, and then you look at Dean's record for almost every county he's played for in England, then clearly he comes into the conversation. So, this gives us an opportunity to see Dean as a like-for-like replacement for Hash, and see how he goes. He's always made it clear that he's still keen on playing one-day international cricket, and this gives us an opportunity to see him in that position.
"We wanted to see Klaasen a bit longer, and Christiaan Jonker came in and did quite well for us in the T20. His numbers in the franchise system are pretty good. What we've set out to do from the outset is to try have almost two players for every position. We know what David [Miller] can do. He's not had a lot of runs recently, but this is a chance to see Christiaan in that position so we can then assess both of them and see which one we can take forward."
Jonker's solitary T20I against India in February was the only time Gibson had seen him bat live up to that point, but he liked what he saw then, and said that Jonker had since worked hard to bring his fitness up to the required level.
"I liked that he came in and he was just uncomplicated," Gibson said. "He just watched the ball and hit it. And he obviously understood his game and his strengths really well. And he probably also understood that if you're going to play international T20 cricket you need to be a little fitter, so he's gone away and worked really hard on that and hopefully he can give a really good account of himself over the next series."
Gibson said that the likes of Temba Bavuma, Chris Morris and Vernon Philander, while not in the frame for the Zimbabwe series, were still part of the team's thinking heading towards the World Cup. Philander is only expected to recover from an ankle injury in November, while Morris was sidelined after injuring his back during this year's IPL. Morris is set to return to action with the Titans when South Africa's domestic season kicks off this week, but Gibson made no secret over his concerns over Morris' injury-prone past.
"My problem with Morris …Okay, there's a little bit of a cricket problem, but the bigger problem is fitness I think," Gibson said. "Not in terms of general fitness, but in terms of staying on the park. Morris in the last three years has had a lot of injury issues, more so than cricket issues, and I think once he's fit and strong then I think his real talent will come to the fore. That's the message that I've given him already. We know what Morris can do, and we want him to be as fit as he can to allow himself to do what we know he's capable of doing. Obviously, he's back to fitness now and he's playing for the Titans, which is fantastic, and if he can play the next month and a half, two months for the Titans and getting really hardened to cricket, then that's obviously very good for us."