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Temba Bavuma's role, Lungi Ngidi vs Anrich Nortje, and other questions for South Africa

With the T20 World Cup in four months' time, the think tank will want to iron out all the kinks as soon as possible

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
South Africa began their preparations for this year's T20 World Cup in India on the back of 11 wins from their last 12 matches. They extended that to 13 from 14 before losing two in a row, all while asking themselves several questions about team combination and strategy. After a 2-2 draw, here is what they have to ponder:

What to do about Temba Bavuma?

There is no doubt he is an astute captain and an articulate speaker, but neither of those things are what is needed from an opening batter in T20 cricket. There, it is purely about numbers - and particularly strike rate. Bavuma's is 120.60 in T20Is, which, since June 2021, has fallen further to 115.94 - the lowest among openers from the top six teams at the previous T20 World Cup. Moreover, if Quinton de Kock doesn't fire, that strike rate might become a liability for South Africa.
Bavuma isn't the biggest hitter, but in this series he was also kept quiet by the outstanding skill of Bhuvneshwar Kumar, which limited his ability to rotate strike. Coach Mark Boucher recognised the problem: "Bhuvi was exceptional. He put us under pressure in the Powerplays. That's an area that India dominated us in, and that's something we will definitely look into and try and improve".
But how? On this tour, they responded to sluggish starts by promoting Dwaine Pretorius to a pinch-hitting role at No. 3, which worked once in four matches, and probably won't be a long-term solution. Perhaps there is an argument to move Bavuma down the order - easier said than done, read on to find out why - or to ask him to make use of the retired outs we have seen in this format of late.
Either way, a quick survey of other openers - David Warner, Jason Roy, Martin Guptill and Rohit Sharma - says that striking at around 140 is more acceptable, and Bavuma has to get up there to make sure South Africa get off to more aggressive opening passages of play.

Who fits in the middle order?

Rassie van der Dussen won a game, Heinrich Klaasen won a game, David Miller was with both of them as they did so, Tristan Stubbs got two matches but didn't bat, and it sounds like Aiden Markram - who missed this series after contracting Covid-19 - will slot straight back in. But is there space for all of them?
It is likely that South Africa can only fit three, or at a push, four of these five players into Nos. 3 to 6 or 7 in the batting order, and it may be tricky to decide between them. Markram offers a part-time bowling option, Klaasen can keep wicket if he needs to, and van der Dussen and Miller have experience on their side.
If the last of those holds sway, that may mean Stubbs sits out for the time being, but his form in the most recent domestic competitions suggests that South Africa should give him an opportunity sooner rather than later. A problem of plenty in the middle order is one selectors don't mind having. Besides, the openers' issue is way bigger than this.

Seven batters or two allrounders?

On the evidence of the XI picked for the last match, South Africa can't have both. They played the combination of Pretorius and Wayne Parnell - who Marco Jansen replaced in the fourth match - and six specialist batters in the first three games, but had to leave Jansen out in the fifth to play the seventh batter.
With two allrounders, they also created room for two specialist spinners, which gave them six bowling options; but the batting looked a bit light. With seven batters - allrounder included - they only have five bowling options and space for just one specialist spinner, which can be limiting, unless the allrounder is also a spinner. And that is what they wanted from the outset.
"We wanted to play six batters with Aiden being our sixth bowling option, but we couldn't do that," Boucher said, further opening the door for Markram's immediate return.
It is likely that in Australian conditions - where the T20 World Cup will be held in four months' time - South Africa will revert to one specialist spinner and three quicks. Their choice, then, will mostly be between seven batters or six and an allrounder, with Markram doing some bowling too.
Ngidi had not played a T20I for almost a year before this series, while Nortje had not played any format of international cricket in more than six months. They both made their returns, and on the early evidence, there is a case to be made for Ngidi's inclusion over Nortje's if South Africa have to choose only one of them.
Ngidi was benched for the entire IPL but spent the time working on his conditioning and skills, and looks leaner and fitter than at any point in his career while also being more in control of his craft. He can still reach 140kph-plus, and has also developed a well-disguised slower ball and his change-ups brought wickets, especially in the final match.
Nortje, who regained full fitness following a persistent hip and back injury at the IPL, was more wayward, struggling to find his lengths on occasions. By his own admission, he is not quite where he was before the injury, and wants more time to bowl longer spells and find his rhythm.
That will come in the next few months, with a full tour of England looming, and his progression could set up an intriguing contest with Ngidi and perhaps even Jansen in South Africa's XIs at the T20 World Cup.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent