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South Africa's latest batting implosion exposes issues with the system

Domestic cricket is not providing the grounding for batters to step up at Test level

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
Aiden Markram miscues a pull off Ben Stokes  •  PA Photos/Getty Images

Aiden Markram miscues a pull off Ben Stokes  •  PA Photos/Getty Images

We've been here before, haven't we? South Africa's attack have just about kept them in the contest after a batting implosion that is among the worst we've seen. The 151 made at Old Trafford is South Africa's third-lowest score batting first since readmission, and it continued a concerning trend of a lack of big scores, individually and in partnerships.
South Africa have long argued that their lack of runs comes from difficult home conditions but that's not entirely true. Two of South Africa's lowest first-innings scores since readmission have come in 2022 alone, and three of their lowest 10 since 2021. All of those blowouts happened away from home, where South Africa's batting records have taken an alarming about-turn.
In the last three years, South Africa's top six have the worst record on the road among all Test teams. In 11 away Tests, South Africa average 26.49, having scored five hundreds and 12 fifties. The lows of the last three years look even worse against the backdrop of the highs of the past. Between 2012 and 2014, with Graeme Smith, Jacques Kallis, Hashim Amla and AB de Villiers in their line-up, South Africa had the best top six on the road. They averaged 47.91 across 14 away Tests and scored 21 hundreds and 22 fifties.
Before we get into the forensic examination of how and why the line-up is faring as poorly as it is, let's address the obvious issue that emerged from Old Trafford: why did Dean Elgar choose to bat first in bowler-friendly conditions - overhead and underfoot? The answer lies more in team selection than Elgar's giving in to his instinctive bat-first nature. With two specialist spinners, South Africa were eyeing bowling last, so… they had to bat first.
They also had to leave out one of the four quicks that did the job at Lord's and chose to bench lanky left-armer Marco Jansen, which looked like a mistake. Jansen swung the ball at an average of 1.9 degrees at pace in the first Test. Imagine what he would have been able to do here. Perhaps even imagine what he may have been able to do with the bat, after he was South Africa's fourth-highest run-scorer at Lord's, but don't imagine it too much because lower-order runs cannot continuously bail the top order out.
The decline in South Africa's batting stems from the drop in quality of the domestic first-class game, which has seen batters scoring more runs more easily, against bowling that is producing fewer quality quicks than before. Between 2006 and 2010, there were only four batters in South Africa's top-tier first-class system who averaged over 50 (minimum 1000 runs): JP Duminy, Neil McKenzie, Ashwell Prince and Albie Morkel, who scored 33 Test hundreds between them. In the last five years, there have been nine batters with averages over 50: Aiden Markram, Kyle Verreynne, Rassie van der Dussen, Pieter Malan, David Bedingham, Colin Ackermann, Raynard van Tonder, Ryan Rickelton and Keegan Petersen. All but Bedingham, Ackermann, and van Tonder have played Tests. Between them, they've only scored two centuries since 2018.
In the same period, the number of pace bowlers who average 25 and under (having bowled at least 1000 deliveries) has come down from 12 to five. What that tells us is that South African first-class batters are not facing enough bowling that can properly prepare them for Test cricket. Nobody expects domestic attacks to be at the same level as James Anderson, Stuart Broad and Ollie Robinson, but when South Africa's line-up were truly tested by them, they looked out of their depth. South Africa were beaten off 43% of the balls they faced in the first hour. Sarel Erwee and Petersen (two of the batters who were selected for the Test side on the promise of recent first-class runs) were uncertain in their footwork. Erwee was only half-forward when he inside-edged Anderson to Ben Foakes; Petersen was stuck on his back foot when he was squared up by Broad.
But it is Markram who is the best example of the massive step up needed when South Africa's domestic batters make it as internationals. Since 2018, Markram averages 67.53 from 10 domestic first-class matches, with five centuries, but in 18 home Tests in the same period, he averages just over half that: 34.69, with only two hundreds. Markram has struggled in Tests over the last two years and was dropped as opener earlier in the year, only to find himself back and also struggling in the middle-order. The sensible solution would be to send him back to the first-class system to rediscover his touch but there's every chance he won't be adequately challenged.
Why? Because South Africa's outstanding players put their feet up when domestic red-ball cricket is being played, or occasionally, head to play in franchise leagues. Since 2018, Rabada has played one first-class match, Ngidi two, Nortje 12, and Jansen 17. As a comparison, 105 other players have played at least 24 first-class matches, which is twice as many as Nortje, and 16 others have played at least 34, twice as many as Jansen.
South Africa are not the only team who face this issue, as T20 leagues encroach on the calendar and inevitably swallow up the domestic schedule. With CSA's new T20 league to be played in the prime summer window in January-February, the first-class competition will be pushed further into the margins. We know all the reasons (money, money and money) that CSA has had to go down this route and we may even sympathise with it, but it won't make performances like this any easier to stomach.
"Our batters know what they have to go and do," Kagiso Rabada said, after top-scoring with 36. "None of them are getting out on purpose. We know we have quality, it is a young batting line-up. It's just about gaining the experience, I do think they know what they've done wrong. We're backing them to do their best. If it doesn't come off, it is what it is. They are taking responsibility. I know they are trying their best, We can't go around pointing fingers, that's energy sapping. We have to look forward and apply ourselves and hope to score some runs as a unit."
South Africa's line-up sans superstars has so far relied on smaller, grittier contributions and has achieved some amazing things, including two venue-record chases against India in Johannesburg and Cape Town. They have regularly shown they are more than the sum of their parts. But when they are only that, it's not enough and South Africa will have to ask some serious questions of their system to get better.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent