It's early days yet but part of South Africa's trip to India for a whistle-stop three-match ODI series starting this week could serve as a recce of sorts of the next 50-over World Cup, in 2023. Having won their first series in a year in ODIs, against Australia who they swept 3-0, that is the area of South Africa's game that looks the strongest after a period of upheaval and transition which has seen series losses in both the shortest and the longest format in a season of sweeping change.
South Africa have a new head coach in Mark Boucher, a new-white ball captain in Quinton de Kock and a yet-to-be-named new Test captain in the next few months. South Africa still see themselves "at the bottom of the ladder," according to Boucher and they will use their last assignment of the 2019-20 season to keep climbing.
"India is going to be a tough test," Boucher said, immediately after the victory over Australia. "But what's impressed me is that the guys have responded to the messages we have been sending them. They're prepared to change their mindsets a bit and also a lot of different players stepping up."
South Africa fielded 33 different players across all formats this season and handed out 10 new white-ball caps since September as they sought new combinations. The converse of that is no position in their XI is certain with several candidates for each position, which has given Boucher "a good headache with regards to selecting an XI because a lot of the guys are in form."
That is exactly how a team begins the process of planning for a major tournament. England did something similar when they gave out seven ODI debuts in 2015, as they began their rebuilding process after that year's World Cup debacle. South Africa are on a similar mission and have cast their net widely and it is slowly starting to catch some keepers.
One of them is Temba Bavuma, who played only one of the three ODIs against Australia, but has secured the opening birth. "Temba owns that spot and if we can get him back in, then he'll get back in," Boucher said.
The trouble is that Bavuma is struggling with a hamstring injury and after being withdrawn from the final matches against Australia, he may also have to miss the first fixture in India. For that reason, Janneman Malan, who scored a match-winning century in his second ODI, has also been included in the traveling group. "The medical staff have suggested that maybe Temba will miss the first game so we needed cover for him. It's good to see Janneman has put his hand up and taken his chance," Boucher said.
Other than that, just about everything is up for grabs with several batsmen competing for middle-order spots. Among them is Heinrich Klaasen, who topped the run-charts against Australia after being dismissed only once in three innings, Kyle Verreynne who scored 50, 3 and 48 in his first three international knocks, Jon-Jon Smuts, who made a career-best 84 in the final match against Australia, David Miller, who is finally playing like the finisher he is reputed to be, Rassie van der Dussen, the darling of the summer, and Faf du Plessis, the former captain who remains available to play all formats.
Of those, du Plessis in the most unlikely to travel to the 2023 World Cup, so why is he making the trip? "If you go to a place like India you need a bit of a balance of youth and experience," Boucher explained. "Faf has done really well, full stop for South Africa. In his last knock he got a hundred. He knows Indian conditions really well so just him being around the squad will add a lot of value and experience. Why would you not want to have Faf involved?"
In the wake of a wave of retirements, the ability to transfer knowledge has been one of the things South Africa have lacked and du Plessis is one of the few players who can change that. That he remains involved is a credit to his character and an indication of the legacy he would like to leave behind. How long he will stick around is not known but Boucher has indicated he will be needed beyond this season, especially as South Africa seek to improve in other formats, particularly red-ball cricket. "We are still a long way off in Test cricket," Boucher said.
They lost 1-3 to England and many areas of their game need improvement, which will be addressed once this India visit is over. In the World Test Championship too, they have so far won only one of seven games and lost the remaining six to be placed seventh out of nine teams.
South Africa have a significant winter break, with no cricket scheduled until a trip to Sri Lanka in May and no Test before the Caribbean in July and will spend some of their time off trying to sharpen their skills at specialised training camps.
"There's a lot of hard work that needs to be done and we've put in place camps over the off season. We've got a lot of catching up to do with world cricket, for where we want to be and where we can be," Boucher said. "The guys understand that there is a lot of hard work to be done before we start playing the next Test series in the West Indies. Once we do that, then we will see where we can go."
For now, to India, to finish a season that started there, just before it all unravelled.