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News Analysis

Strong showing from second string gives South Africa 'options' ahead of Test winter

We assess how the back-up went against Bangladesh and their prospects for touring England

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
Duanne Olivier appeals for a wicket against Bangladesh  •  AFP/Getty Images

Duanne Olivier appeals for a wicket against Bangladesh  •  AFP/Getty Images

South Africa are not throwing the doors open to welcome back the IPL absentees who "vacated their spots", as coach Mark Boucher put it, after finding a strong second-tier of players in their series sweep over Bangladesh.
South Africa dominated the two Tests despite being without their entire frontline pace pack, and with four of their top six batters having 13 Test caps between. That will give the selectors a "great headache", according to captain Dean Elgar, who encouraged the replacement players to make it difficult for the established ones to get back in.
"My message for new guys was to put those guys under pressure, to go out there and make a play for yourself and make a play for the team. They mustn't undersell their value as young new cricketers," Elgar said.
Kagiso Rabada, Lungi Ngidi, Anrich Nortje, Marco Jansen, Aiden Markram and Rassie van der Dussen collectively decided to play at the IPL rather than in the Test series against Bangladesh, after CSA left the decision in the player's hands. That opened the door for Ryan Rickelton and Lizaad Williams to debut, Sarel Erwee to establish himself as an opener, Duanne Olivier to lead the attack and Simon Harmer to make a Test comeback - and all of them impressed Elgar.
"By giving guys experience, you create a lot more depth going forward," he said. "We are in a very fortunate and strong position by giving guys exposure at this level. Guys have put their hands up brilliantly."
While it would be difficult to imagine South Africa looking past the pace bowlers, Markram, who has averaged 16.38 since Elgar took over the captaincy, and van der Dussen (30.81 in the same time) are on shaky ground. Markram was dropped down the order in favour of Erwee at the top in New Zealand and was set to be benched for the Bangladesh series, while van der Dussen has failed to make the No. 4 spot his own. Asked what the plan for the pair on their return would be, Elgar indicated they would have to fight to get their Test places back.
"I don't think the statement of them coming back is a fair one," Elgar said. "The guys that have played right now have made a massive statement. We've got a decent batting pool going forward. I can't speak on if those guys are going to get selected again. That's out of my hands."
Here we assess South Africa's options for the next Test assignment, against England in August-September.

Erwee vs Markram

Though Erwee was picked to open the batting in New Zealand, with Markram at the IPL he had an opportunity to make his partnership with Elgar more permanent. So far, so good. The pair average 49.62 in eight innings together, with two century and two fifty-plus stands. Elgar and Markram averaged 31.48, the worst by any opening pair who have been together for at least 1000 runs. Erwee is a patient player, who leaves the ball well, and allowed Elgar to take on a more attacking role. Elgar's second- and third-fastest fifties came in this series, off 60 and 66 balls respectively.
Where Erwee let himself down was that once he got in, he gave his wicket away and was unable to kick on past the 40s. In the first Test, he played on, trying to cut Mehidy Hasan Miraz but under-edging, and in the second, he chipped a catch straight to mid-on. Erwee showed he has staying power in New Zealand, where he scored a century, but admitted he needs "bigger scores on the board to help myself".
Erwee should get the nod to go to England as Elgar's opening partner but his biggest threat perhaps doesn't come from Markram: Pieter Malan, who played three Tests in the 2019-20 season, topped the first-class run-charts this summer.

Rickelton vs van der Dussen

With great expectations after a season in which he averaged over 80 in domestic cricket, Rickelton got starts in all four innings against Bangladesh and showed himself to be an aggressive middle-order batter, who is unafraid to reverse-sweep early - it was that shot that brought him his first runs in Test cricket. In search of quick runs, he was out top-edging a pull in Durban and handing a catch to short mid-on in Gqeberha but impressed his captain, who singled him out for making a good first impression in international cricket.
"It was nice to see young guys like Ryan Rickelton coming in and taking to it pretty well," Elgar said. "The intensity wasn't like maybe playing against England but he still got a little taste and he understands the arena now and what we are expecting going forward as a player."
Given that van der Dussen is known for starting slowly, and that Bavuma performed well in the No. 4 role in this series, Rickelton could be afforded a long run in the middle-order with van der Dussen likely to be dropped for the England series.
In the bowling department, South Africa now have even more options with the addition of an offspinner and a bigger pace battery. Here's how the attack stacked up:

Harmer's comeback

Before Brexit, Harmer would not have thought a Test comeback for South Africa was possible. He would not have even wanted it and might have even preferred to qualify for England, but all that's changed. Since returning to South Africa's domestic set-up, Harmer has dominated the field and was the leading wicket-taker in this season's first-class competition and performed well under pressure. He bowled the Titans to victory in the season finale, taking a nine-for.
Harmer was impressive on Test return and stole the headlines in the first innings in Durban, where his brand of attacking offspin got him four wickets. But he was also happy to play the supporting role to Keshav Maharaj, who finished as the leading wicket-taker with 16 in the series. Harmer wasn't far behind with 13 and has given South Africa a whole new combination to consider.
Not since 1970 had they played two specialist spinners at home and if these matches were on the Highveld, they would not have done so in this series. But on slow coastal pitches that took turn, South Africa discovered a new combination to their attack and Harmer believes they can use it in England too.
Speaking to the broadcasters afterwards, he said he hoped he had given the selectors cause to think of him as a spin-bowling allrounder and that he believed he and Maharaj could operate successfully in tandem at Lord's, Old Trafford and The Oval. "All of those venues turn," he said.
Given Harmer's success with Essex, South Africa cannot ignore him for the England tour and Boucher confirmed that, if selected, even players with overseas deals with counties will be available for national duty. "As far as I am concerned everyone is available. I've had personal conversations with most of the guys and they've all come into the set-up saying they want to play for South Africa," Boucher said. "I'd like to think that each guy, if picked for South Africa, will choose to play for them ahead of any county or franchise." (Ahem, IPL Six.)

Williams enjoys his moment

On spinners' surfaces, Williams had a tough debut series that finished with three wickets at 35.00. He was impressive with the new ball in Durban and then delivered the spell that cracked the Bangladesh middle-order open but went wicketless in Gqeberha, where he also struggled with his lengths and consistency. Williams conceded at over four runs an over in the first innings at St George's Park.
He was preferred over Lutho Sipamla (who then got injured) and Daryn Dupavillon for this series but probably doesn't need us to tell him Sipamla, in particular, is likely to get the nod ahead of him in future. Williams was the last South African to leave the field in Gqeberha as he knelt down to pray once the series had been won. He is a cricketer who overflows with gratitude for what the game has given him after life handed him some early challenges but Williams is unlikely to make the England squad. A good home summer could see him come back into contention at a later stage.

Olivier treads water

A regular since the India series, Olivier has strong domestic form in the first half of the season (he was the leading wicket-taker in the four-day competition at one stage) and Nortje's long-standing injury to thank for his Test comeback, which promised more than it delivered. Olivier returned rebranded from enforcer to controller and changed his lengths from short to full. It worked, to a degree, for Yorkshire and at the start of this summer but after contracting Covid-19 before the international Test season, Olivier has not looked his best. He was down on pace and struggled to have the same impact he has had at domestic level. In five Tests, Olivier took 11 wickets at 33.63.
If Nortje regains full fitness, Olivier may need to have an outstanding county season to be considered for the squad to play England, and even if he is included, it's likely he has fallen behind Jansen in the pecking order to play.
Overall, South Africa's new players have allayed a fear Boucher had when he took over the job in December 2019, that of the talent pool being shallow. The performances in this series against Bangladesh prove there is some depth and it is continually growing. It also means South Africa can take a varied squad to England, with many bases covered, which is exactly how Elgar wants it to be.
"You want more options than none," he said. "We've got a few extremely challenging away series coming up. Our Test side is in a very healthy position. We are very grateful for the cricket we've played this summer."

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent