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Race and role-definition collide as Zondo, Markram, van der Dussen jostle for one batting spot

Innings defeat to England Lions should raise alarm bells but South Africa may not see reason to panic yet

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
Defeat by an innings and 56 runs in a tour match, against a collection of the opposition's next-best players, should raise alarm bells for any touring team, but South Africa may not see reason to panic just yet. Their heavy loss came with a second-string seam-bowling attack. That, of course, raises questions about their depth and the performance of the first-choice spinner, but also allowed them to assess all their options ahead of the three-Test series against England.
The big concerns were that Keshav Maharaj came under attack from Harry Brook, and Keegan Petersen wasn't among the runs. But there were some constructive showings, too, specifically in the middle order. Khaya Zondo, Rassie van der Dussen and Aiden Markram all made their cases for a spot in South Africa's Test XI, with good scores.
The three of them, along with Ryan Rickelton, are competing for two middle-order spots after Temba Bavuma was ruled out of the tour with an elbow injury. And neither van der Dussen nor Markram, who were regulars before the Bangladesh series they missed in favour of the IPL, can consider their places safe.
Markram had already been replaced by Sarel Erwee in the opening role before the Bangladesh tour, while Rickelton debuted in van der Dussen's place, on the back of a strong domestic season, and performed relatively well having also been in good form for Northants in a brief county stint.
None of them emulated the Lions' Brook or Ben Duckett by reaching three figures, and none of them batted with the intent of Sam Billings. But, as Markram said, South Africa have their own brand of cricket and don't want to be caught in the trap of trying to emulate England's approach.
Theirs is a more considered, perhaps more stodgy style of batting, but it paid off in the white-ball series, where South Africa drew the ODIs 1-1 and won the T20Is 2-1. Markram and van der Dussen were in the runs there, and again in the red-ball warm-up, which may put them in prime position for places.
Van der Dussen scored 75 in the first innings and shared in a 146-run sixth-wicket stand with Zondo, and was dismissed for 13 in the second. Zondo scored 86 in his first innings with a senior side in England, and is the most likely challenger. Markram, in a new position at No. 4, made 10 in the first innings and was looking well set on 88* in the second when he ran out of partners. Rickelton registered a first-ball duck and a second-innings 15, which may put him a little further back in the queue.
Zondo acknowledged that it was worthwhile for him to get first-hand experience of conditions he is unfamiliar with. "It's just nice to get out there and get some runs," he said. "It's nice to come to England. With all the talk you hear of the ball swinging and the ball seaming and the slopes, it's nice just to get out and experience it and make sure you spend a lot of time at the crease, so that you are best prepared as a player.
"I worked on my balance and worked on playing the ball late, because the ball nips a lot more. You never really feel like you're in, you've got to make sure you're always awake. As soon as you think you're comfortable, that's when the ball does something you don't expect it to do and that's when it catches you off guard."
When asked if he thought he had done enough to earn a spot, he was non-committal but optimistic: "I don't know. There's a lot of competition. It was my first practice game with the Test side so hopefully it shows that I can play."
That he can play is not in doubt, but whether he will play could become a talking point as the series goes on. Zondo, as readers might remember, was the catalyst for a letter written by black African players to CSA complaining about their non-selection in starting XIs. This was after Zondo went on tour to India in 2015 as a reserve batter and did not play a single game even when an extra batter was called for.
That incident was subsequently the subject of the testimony at the Social Justice and Nation Building (SJN) hearings in which former selector Hussein Manack said he was pressured by then captain AB de Villiers into picking Dean Elgar, who was flown in ahead of the Test series, over Zondo in the deciding ODI against India.
De Villiers responded by saying that he only ever influenced selection with the best interests of the team in mind.
Zondo had also made a submission to the SJN, initially in private, but after Manack appeared, Zondo asked for his interview to be made public. It revealed the mental anguish and feelings of exclusion Zondo suffered. He was the only actively involved player to testify at the SJN, and it seemed to unburden him, as he went on to score his first red-ball double-hundred in the season that followed. He finished with 368 runs in seven innings at 73.60 in the domestic season.
Only Pieter Malan and Rickelton played in the same number of innings and averaged higher, which boosts both Zondo's and Rickelton's chances of playing, though neither of them have the experience of van der Dussen or Markram.
The main concern around van der Dussen is that he hasn't been in good Test form recently. Last season, he scored 214 runs in nine innings at 23.78, with no fifties. South Africa need more than that at No. 4, especially in Bavuma's absence.
Markram has had it leaner and only scored 213 runs in his last seven Tests at 16.38, with one fifty. He would not have played in New Zealand if Petersen had made the trip, but he missed out after contracting Covid-19. Erwee debuted in Markram's opening berth on that tour and Markram was moved to No. 3 where he scored 73 runs in four innings. He missed the Bangladesh Tests when he went to the IPL but would likely not have played in that series anyway.
When asked before the series if a middle-order role had been discussed for him, Markram confirmed that it hadn't, though on the evidence of the tour match that has changed. Markram also said at the time that he didn't expect to play, that he was unfamiliar in the middle order in red-ball cricket and would need some preparation if he was going to bat there. He has more or less stuck to that message since, although he has indicated that he is readying for a spot lower down the order. "We've done as much prep as we could have done so far. I'm not sure whether it's going to happen or not but I am preparing for that," he said. "We'll see in the build-up to the match if I am going to play."
If Markram does play at No. 4 or No. 5 ahead of Zondo, it will be a throwback to a historical incident where similar issues of race and role-definition collided. In 2001, on a tour to Australia where the team had lost the series 2-0 with one to play, South Africa dropped Lance Klusener and the selectors wanted to pick Jacques Rudolph, a top-order batter, in his place. CSA's president Percy Sonn over-ruled them and insisted Justin Ontong, a middle-order batter, play instead.
Sonn also recognised that picking Ontong, as a player of colour, would be a nod to transformation. The headlines at the time focused purely on the issue of race-based selection and not the cricketing argument Sonn made, and neither Ontong's nor Rudolph's career went anywhere from that point. Rudolph took up a Kolpak deal with Yorkshire, and a decade later, returned to South Africa, where he was picked as an opening batter. But he failed.
He was then moved down the order, creating no room for a player such as Thami Tsolekile, for example, before eventually being dropped. Ontong only played two Tests and made sporadic white-ball appearances before moving on to becoming South Africa's fielding coach.
Of course, neither Zondo nor Markram would want their names discussed in this context. But they will both know that is the reality of South African cricketers and that the burden on their shoulders weighs heavy. Markram, if given an opportunity, will know that unless he succeeds consistently, he may not find his way back into the Test set-up.
Zondo, if he plays, will be under enormous pressure to succeed. If he doesn't, chances are that his race will come into the discussions.
Of the two, Zondo is probably the one more caught between a rock and a hard place, but he's had it tougher. He has had to pick himself up from a place not many others have been in, and reckons he became a better cricketer because of it. "I am just watching every ball and hoping to get better and mix with the best," he said.
"The bowlers definitely tested us. They were always testing your technique. They're always in a good area. As a batter you take confidence if you're able to deal with it. I felt like okay cool, this is big-boy cricket."

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent