Quinton de Kock will not be named South Africa's Test captain even though there is no clear candidate for the position yet. That was confirmed by Graeme Smith, South Africa's director of cricket, on Friday, who said the risk of overburdening de Kock has resulted in ruling him out of leadership role in all three formats.
De Kock was appointed as the country's white-ball captain in January and succeeded Faf du Plessis, who had been in charge since 2017. Du Plessis also stood down from the Test captaincy but remains available as a player. With South Africa not scheduled to play any Tests before a tour to West Indies in July-August, they have some time before deciding who will lead them in whites but are certain it will not be de Kock.
"The one thing I can confirm is that Quinton will be our white-ball captain and he won't be the Test captain going forward," Smith said. "We want to keep Quinton fresh and playing well. I've always believed, having been in the job myself, that captaining all three formats is challenging. We've seen a number of nations trying to figure out what's best and I think across three formats, it probably doesn't work."
Among teams competing in the World Test Championship, only India and New Zealand have the same captain across all three formats and although South Africa had the same until this summer, they have also tried multiple captains. When Smith gave up the white-ball captaincy after the 2011 World Cup, AB de Villiers was appointed and during de Villiers' tenure, he handed first the T20, then the Test and then the ODI reigns to du Plessis. In between, Johan Botha and Hashim Amla had stints as T20 and Test captain, respectively. When du Plessis took over across all formats, consistency was cited as the main reason - not to mention his obvious leadership qualities - but now both the calendar and their own circumstances have forced a change.
While the Future Tours Programme has become fluid as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, South Africa were set for a fairly busy schedule over the next few months with a white-ball tour of Sri Lanka in June, a tour to West Indies as mentioned, possible white-ball games in Pakistan and a home-series against them, the T20 World Cup and a summer featuring Sri Lanka and Australia in 2020-21. Given that de Kock is also their premier wicket-keeper and has stated his desire to keep the gloves, and that he opens the batting in white-ball cricket, adding the Test captaincy to his load was decided as being too much.
"From a workload and mental capacity, we felt that to burden him with all three formats wouldn't be beneficial for us. And with the style of personality and player that he is, we want to keep him as expressive as possible," Smith said.
But if not de Kock, then who?
That's the question Smith can't answer just yet with South Africa's current transition phase meaning that there is no obvious choice. "I can't tell you who it is going to be. We are in a debate over it," Smith said. "There's no one person that you could pinpoint right now and say that's the guy. There's still a lot of players that are vying for selection and I think it is the challenge we sit with at the moment. There's a lot of players on a similar level."
With the retirements of Vernon Philander, Hashim Amla, de Villiers, Dale Steyn (from red-ball cricket), Imran Tahir (from ODIs but not T20s) and JP Duminy in the last year, South Africa have lost a significant part of their senior core. The 2019-20 summer saw them field a total of 33 players across formats and hand out nine new Test caps. Of those, stand-out performers included Rassie van der Dussen and Anrich Nortje, with the former being mentioned as a potential Test captain given his ability to deal with pressure and a relatively consistent run. He was South Africa's second-highest run-scorer at the 2019 World Cup, behind du Plessis, and fourth-highest in the Test summer after de Kock, Dean Elgar and du Plessis, and has stood out, which is what Smith is looking for. "The challenge for when we do play some cricket is to see who escalates themselves into really consistent performances and who steps up," he said.
But Smith also indicated South Africa could make the appointment from left field and take a chance on someone with potential. "We've got to understand the personalities, look at the people and maybe take a risk on someone potentially and back them," he said. "Coming from a person who a risk was taken on, it is something we would consider."
Smith had played just eight Tests and was 22-years old when he took over from Shaun Pollock and went on to captain for 109 Tests for over 11 years. His own success could prompt South Africa to look for someone who is less secure of his spot in the team than a potential captain might be, which could put Temba Bavuma or Aiden Markram into the frame. Bavuma has experienced captaining the Lions franchise - who have won the first-class title for the past two seasons - but was dropped from the Test side this summer and then recalled after a career-best score of 180 and has massive public support. Markram, on the other hand, led the South Africa under-19 side to the 2014 age-group World Cup title and had been touted as the future senior men's skipper. He spent most of the summer on the sidelines with a fractured finger, but scored two hundreds in six domestic limited-overs matches on his return and is likely to get his Test spot back.
Cricket South Africa have not put a timeline on when they will announce the new Test captain. But with the country on lockdown until the end of April and cricket unlikely to resume for several months, they are in no hurry to hand out the captaincy armband.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent