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Bowling riches leave South Africa with good headache ahead of T20 World Cup

Five fast bowlers and two spinners present them with a lot of options, but landing on the right one won't be easy

Cricket loves a 'good' headache: the kind where a team has to choose between multiple options - each of them compelling - for the same role. When the T20 World Cup begins later this month, South Africa will have more than one good headache to deal with, particularly on the bowling front.
Their 15 for the tournament includes five fast bowlers - two of whom are bowling allrounders - and two spinners. That isn't an unusual number of options, but South Africa differ from some other teams in not having a clear-cut hierarchy among those options, with Kagiso Rabada perhaps the only guaranteed starter.
"I think competition is good, competition for spots," Wayne Parnell, one of the two fast-bowling allrounders in South Africa's squad, said ahead of the second T20I against India in Guwahati. "Every single fast bowler we have is different; we have a different skillset.
"I think that's a positive for us. It also means that when we're presented with any particular conditions, we can play a certain set of fast bowlers. So I think, personally, having the variety that we do have is actually really good."
When South Africa toured India for another T20I series this June, they tried out an unusual combination, picking six bowlers and pushing Dwaine Pretorius - one of their two allrounders - up to No. 3 as a pinch-hitter. This time around, they have stuck with five main bowling options, with Aiden Markram's offspin providing a sixth option.
Five bowlers is probably the more balanced approach, but it means choosing one more bowler to leave out.
South Africa's fast bowlers, as Parnell pointed out, are all different, and each of them prefers bowling in certain phases. This complicates selection. Given the need for batting depth, one of Parnell or Pretorius will have to play, but the former is a left-arm swing bowler who likes to bowl in the powerplay, while the latter is a predominantly second-half-of-the-innings operator.
This was perhaps why South Africa, having picked Parnell for the first T20I in Thiruvananthapuram, left out Lungi Ngidi, despite his being perhaps their most impressive performer in the T20I leg of their recent tour of England. Ngidi has been a hugely improved T20 bowler over recent months, showing excellent control over his slower ball - whether it is full and at the stumps, wide and making the batter reach for the ball, or bowled into the pitch and short of a good length.
But South Africa have used Ngidi largely as a top-and-tail bowler - he has only bowled one over in the middle overs in T20Is this year - and with Parnell playing, they needed a middle-overs enforcer in their attack in Thiruvananthapuram, which meant they preferred Anrich Nortje over Ngidi.
At another venue, where they expect new-ball swing to be less of a factor, there is every chance South Africa could pick Ngidi and Pretorius over Parnell and Nortje.
There is another choice, too, that South Africa may have to consider, particularly once the World Cup begins. So far this year, Keshav Maharaj (11) and Tabraiz Shamsi (10) have played more T20Is than any other South Africa bowler, but on certain Australian pitches, the team management could be tempted to leave out one of them and play a fourth fast bowler.
Which spinner makes way in that situation is another difficult choice. Shamsi is ranked No. 2 on the T20I bowlers' rankings, but is in the middle of his worst year in the format in terms of economy. Having conceded his runs at economy rates of 7.97 and 5.72 in his two previous years, Shamsi has gone at 9.37 so far in 2022.
And while Shamsi's average is a fairly impressive 24.75, five of his 12 wickets came in one innings in Southampton where an already struggling England line-up collapsed while going after him.
Maharaj has been significantly more economical than Shamsi this year, going at 8.33 per over, and has done this while bowling regularly in the powerplay - in seven out of 11 innings. Shamsi hasn't bowled a single over in the powerplay this year.
Between the two, Maharaj is by far the better lower-order batter, as he showed while top-scoring with 41 off 35 balls in Thiruvananthapuram to help South Africa recover - in a manner of speaking - from an abject 9 for 5 to an eventual 106 for 8. This could tilt the selection too.
As a left-arm orthodox spinner, Maharaj turns his stock ball away from the right-hander, which should theoretically make him easier to fit into a bowling attack against most teams. Shamsi, however, turns the ball both ways, and as a wristspinner could be better suited to harder Australian pitches that offer bounce but not a great deal of grip.
Decisions, decisions. Whichever way South Africa go over the two remaining T20Is in India and then the World Cup - three quicks and two spinners; four and one; or any other combination - they will have a headache to negotiate. It is a 'good' headache in theory, but is by no means painless.

Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo