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Inexperience and injuries underpin South Africa's batting troubles

South Africa's capitulation at the Gabba was the latest in a year where they have averaged just 24.63 in Tests

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
Rassie van der Dussen gets knocked over in Brisbane  •  Associated Press

Rassie van der Dussen gets knocked over in Brisbane  •  Associated Press

Let's get this out of the way up front: parts of this story could sound like excuses or justifications for South Africa's poor batting. They're not. Think of them as explanations of sorts, reasons, perhaps, and ways to ensure we're not going over the same ground when we discuss what we have known for the last year: that their batting line-up has severely underperformed.
In 2022, South Africa's average per wicket is 24.63, the seventh-lowest for any team in a calendar year in which they've played a minimum of 10 Tests, and the lowest for South Africa in their history. They have no batters with Test averages over 40, though this year Temba Bavuma has averaged 41.25. Only four others average over 30 and one of them, Keegan Petersen, missed out on two of the four series they've played. Kyle Verreynne and Dean Elgar are the other two who have some runs to their name, but not nearly as many as South Africa would like.
Almost every member of the South African squad has mentioned conditions as one of the causes, if not the main cause, of their lean patches and their newest cap, Khaya Zondo, has added his voice to the conversation. "I did think this was going to be a tough year of international cricket for the Proteas," he said. "The first series was in New Zealand, then Bangladesh [at home]. Then we went to England and now we're in Australia."
The last time South Africa visited those three countries in the same year was a decade ago, in 2012. They won in all three, with a batting line-up that included Graeme Smith, Hashim Amla, Jacques Kallis and AB de Villiers. Of those, Kallis and de Villiers finished with Test averages over 50 and Smith and Amla just shy of that mark. Those players had also played together for the best part of eight years and at a time when Test cricket was more batter-friendly. A little under five years later, with Smith and Kallis retired and de Villiers on sabbatical, they won in Australia in late 2016, and New Zealand in early 2017 but lost in England, where Amla began to wane.
Since then, South Africa have lost several more experienced batters including Faf du Plessis and Quinton de Kock and have found themselves in a situation where Elgar, with 80 caps and Bavuma, with 52, are the only batters who have even traveled to the places they are playing in now, before. And they're not easy places to play, as Zondo expressed.
New Zealand, England and Australia are the most challenging places to play fast bowling and all three nations boast some of the best executioners of swing, seam movement, pace and bounce we have seen. You could argue that South Africa have that too and it worked for them against India last summer, but the only other home series they've played this year was against Bangladesh with their frontline attack away at the IPL.
Zondo made his debut in that series, as a Covid-19 substitute, and has since played in two Tests, both of which have only had two days' worth of playing time. All he'd like is for the next match he plays to last at least three days so he can have more of an opportunity to see how he matches up. So far, Zondo has shown some promising signs, although it's difficult to analyse too much given how low South Africa's scores have been overall. While his first-class average of 31.47 may raise questions about his selection, he is learning fast.
"Test cricket is played between the sets of stumps," he said. "The guys are testing your technique, they're making you play with a straight blade. The wickets have been tricky. It was a matter of making sure you defend your stumps, because that's where the dismissals were happening. [In Brisbane], there was too much in the pitch for the bowlers to bowl short, and if they did they were wasting their time. But if they put the ball up to the bat and tried to get your pad or nick you off, there was a lot happening.
"It was a matter of making sure that you watched the ball closely, and any movement off the pitch - whether it was up and down, or sideways - you were ahead of it so that you could adjust accordingly. In the first innings, the ball that nipped back for me hit me quickly. In the second innings I made sure I watched the ball more closely and moved quicker, in case it nipped or bounced or stayed low, so I could react."
At the Gabba, Zondo was out for a duck off Scott Boland in the first innings, when he was given out on-field with the decision upheld on umpire's call. He was not out in the second innings, with South Africa's top score of 36. That's not much to write home about, but considering their total was 99, it's something.
But these struggles with the bat are not an isolated incident. They have been bowled out for under 200 in their last six Test innings and even when conditions and quality of bowling are taken into account, the opposition have not been dismissed as cheaply. What else could be the issue?
A lack of consistency in the top six is one problem, and that's been driven by injury. In every series this year, South Africa have had one main batter unavailable: Petersen in New Zealand because of Covid-19; Aiden Markram and Rassie van der Dussen for the Bangladesh series because of the IPL; Bavuma in England because of an elbow issue; van der Dussen for the last Test in England with a broken finger; and now Petersen again, with a torn hamstring.
It means that the best-performing batters can't always play together and there's always someone new coming in. If they're coming into a well-oiled line-up, that may not be too much of a problem, but they're coming into a set-up that needs solutions and also expected to be the solutions. That's too much pressure on a new player, too soon.
Then, there are some obvious technical deficiencies which are concerning for batters at Test level, such as Sarel Erwee's looseness outside off stump and Kyle Verreynne's lack of footwork, which cannot always be compensated for by his good hands. But the general consensus is that the batters on tour are the best South Africa have.
There is, of course, the issue of Ryan Rickelton, who is reeling off hundreds at home, but could not travel to Australia because he needs ankle surgery. Why then, you may ask, is Rickelton playing domestic cricket? Because he has postponed the operation in order to play the summer which includes also competing in the SA20, where he picked up a R1 million (USD 58,000 approx.) deal with MI Emirates. Cricket South Africa's medical team advised against sending him to Australia for fear that the injury may worsen and necessitate a replacement.
We've dissected the issues in the domestic system at length and several sources who spoke to ESPNcricinfo said they are being addressed. Pitches for domestic first-class games are being prepared a little less spicily than in seasons before and batters are getting big hundreds.
Last summer, Rickelton excelled. This season Tony de Zorzi, Jordan Hermann and Heinrich Klaasen are bossing proceedings. Similar names pop every season and South Africa have rotated through several of them: Theunis de Bruyn, for example, is back for this Australia tour and Markram will doubtless be back in future.
So the only other thing that can happen is that the current crop get as much experience at Test level as possible. Even there, South Africa are hamstrung. This is the last three Test series they will play until 2026, which makes the next four innings crucial - not just for them right now, but for the future of the Test team as well.
Zondo seems to know it. "We must apply ourselves and get focused and make sure we're present at the crease all the time," he said. "A lot of guys are new to Test cricket, so there are new tricks and a different intensity they're trying to get used to. You need to be really focused on the ball and have all of your soul and mind there.
"The guys have their own challenges, and they've got to find a way to work through it. It will take us having stronger defences, making sure we keep the good balls out. There's a lot of them in Test cricket. If they can't get you out, you've got half a chance of scoring runs."

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent