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News Analysis

South Africa's team balance in focus with Faf du Plessis rested for ODI series

Phehlukwayo's fitness will be crucial, as will the management of Sipamla's talent

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
Andile Phehlukwayo rejoices after taking a wicket  •  AFP

Andile Phehlukwayo rejoices after taking a wicket  •  AFP

Being without Faf du Plessis and Kagiso Rabada will give South Africa the opportunity for younger players to gain international experience even as it leaves questions over how they will balance their XI against England.
Du Plessis is being rested for the upcoming ODI series after a period in which he played at the IPL, PSL and in the three T20Is while Rabada has been ruled out with a groin strain. South Africa have also released Pite van Biljon, Bjorn Fortuin and Reeza Hendricks from their 23-man group, leaving them with a squad of 18 and similar questions about their combinations as they had in the T20Is.
At the top of South Africa's priority list is getting a pace-bowling allrounder into the XI and for that, they need Andile Phehlukwayo to pass a fitness test. With Dwaine Pretorius ruled out of the entire tour with a hamstring concern, Phehlukwayo is the only option for this position but was unavailable for the T20s. He returned to training on Sunday and should slot straight into the one-day side if he gets the green light to play, chiefly because he provides South Africa with an additional bowler.
"If you've got six bowlers in the team it gives you another option and in 50-over cricket he has been great for us. His one-day record is special," Charl Langeveldt, South Africa's bowling coach said. "He gives you that option bowling at the back end as well. If he is fit, we are going to have a look today, and then we will make a judgement on if he will be able to play on Friday."
Phehlukwayo's inclusion will also help South Africa address their other selection conundrum - transformation targets. As of this season, the national team is required to field, on average, a team that is made up of 25% black African players, which equates to between two and three black African players in an XI, and three more often than two. In the three T20Is, South Africa met that target in each match (although they missed the overall player-of-colour target, which requires six non-white players) by fielding Rabada, Lungi Ngidi and Temba Bavuma. With Rabada out of the series and Bavuma competing with Janneman Malan for the openers' spot, Phehlukwayo will be a welcome addition.
However, the bigger question might be what South Africa will do if Phehlukwayo still needs some time to get match fit. They will likely have to lean on one of their left-arm-spinner allrounders - George Linde and Jon-Jon Smuts - and carry a longer tail which could start as high as No.7. Lungi Ngidi, Anrich Nortje, Junior Dala and/or Lutho Sipamla and Tabraiz Shamsi are the likely frontline bowlers. Of those Dala and Sipamla are the least experienced international cricketers, on opposite sides of the domestic spectrum.
Dala is 30 years old and is into his 10th season of cricket. He has 158 domestic and international white-ball appearances to his name, was the leading wicket-taker in the 2018-19 one-day cup and the fifth-highest wicket-taker in last season's MSL. South Africa see him as a new-ball bowler, perhaps to partner Nortje. "Junior bowls hard lengths, he is aggressive and when you've got two bouncers (per over) and two white balls, I see him very much as part of our 50-over plan," Langeveldt said. "We worked on trying to up-skill him as well, get him to play slower balls and work on his yorkers."
Sipamla is 22, a former national Under-19 player and by all accounts a prospect to be nurtured for the future. He finished third on the wicket charts in the inaugural edition of the MSL, which earned him an international call up in the 2018-19 season. His most recent appearance was in the final T20I against England, where he went for 45 runs in 2.4 overs.
That Sipamla is talented is undisputed, but the way he is managed needs to be more closely considered. Sipamla had not played any cricket, in any format, between an ODI in March and the T20I against England, having sat out the first two rounds of domestic cricket. At Newlands on Tuesday night, he looked a lonely young man, as none of his team-mates offered advice or empathy while Jos Buttler and Dawid Malan tucked in. Langeveldt conceded that South Africa needed to offer Sipamla more support but not that Sipamla should be held back until a less aggressive opposition comes to town.
"It's been hard on Lutho. You know with a top team like that they are always going to target him. You need to speak to him, analyse his own game, try and calm him down in the situation. We tried to prepare him as much as we could, but we all saw in the game it's hard when you are put under pressure, especially against a top-quality team," Langveldt said. "We try to get the team to rally around him, to support him. That's the big thing, to get one of your senior bowlers, even one of your senior players just to back him and say, 'forget about that ball, it's all about the next execution and just be clear in your game plans.' That's a thing we speak about a lot."
But no one came to Sipamla's side at the end of what was a demoralising defeat for South Africa. And this is where they need to be careful. Throw Sipamla into the deep end too many times and he could easily become a casualty of a transformation policy intended to do exactly the opposite. And if they are going to use the sink-or-swim policy for Sipamla, the least that needs to happen is that he has a few lifesavers around. Quinton de Kock wasn't one on Tuesday and usually that's where Faf du Plessis, or Rabada, would come in. Neither of them will be able to in the ODIs, which seems set up to be another test of South Africa's ability to juggle their combinations before they even begin to work out how to take on the team they are playing against.
Langeveldt tried to see the positives in the situation. "For a young bowler, it's a great opportunity to test the mental aspect of the game. England are going to come hard at you. That's the nature of the way they play T20 cricket and fifty-over cricket. So mentally you need to be strong," he said. "When you are under pressure, you need to be able to execute and they will learn from this. We've got work to do with our bowlers."
Ultimately, South Africa have work to do all round because "we have a lack of international experience," as Langeveldt put it. Maybe then it's not such a bad thing to be without du Plessis and Rabada, for if nothing else, it gives younger players the chance to wrestle with the challenges they come up against, at the highest level.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent