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Feature

What will new-look South Africa's starting XI against India look like?

A set of fresh faces, a strong bowling attack, a new captain at the helm - might this be the key to the side's Test renaissance?

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
23-Dec-2021
New captain Dean Elgar, with Temba Bavuma back in the side, will hope to carry forward the momentum from the Test wins against West Indies  •  Getty Images

New captain Dean Elgar, with Temba Bavuma back in the side, will hope to carry forward the momentum from the Test wins against West Indies  •  Getty Images

It's been six months since South Africa last played a Test, in a series that was designed to kick-start their renaissance in the longest format. Under a new captain, Dean Elgar, and with no one remaining from the squad that lifted the Test mace in 2012, South Africa took the first steps on their new journey with a 2-0 win over West Indies, a solid start that they have the opportunity to build on now.
This summer is crucial to South Africa's hopes of faring better in the second World Test Championship cycle than the first, where they finished fifth. Considering the calamitous two years South African cricket had between 2019 and 2021 both on and off the field, that final position may even flatter them, but it still sits uncomfortably. This is a country with a history of going nine years unbeaten on the road and who still managed to establish some fortresses at home. With a fierce attack and a mostly reliable, if not always exciting, batting line-up, South Africa's best quality was that they used to be very, very tough to beat, and they want to get that back. So far there have been several reasons why that hasn't been allowed to happen.
For a start, the Covid-19 pandemic has robbed South Africa of regular Test cricket. While a six-month break over what has mostly been winter in a World Cup year is not entirely unusual, South Africa have only played five Tests in 2021, so far. They should have played nine but Australia opted not to travel for a four-Test series in March. Now they have three series back-to-back, with three Tests against India, two in New Zealand and two more against Bangladesh, before an August tour to England for three more Tests. If all goes as planned, South Africa should play at least ten Tests in 2022, and can build on the foundation they laid in the Caribbean.
A second factor that has stood in South Africa's way of developing has been the regularity of big-name retirements. Since Mark Boucher's in 2012, they have lost an icon player almost every year: Jacques Kallis in 2013, Graeme Smith in 2014, Alviro Petersen in 2015; JP Duminy in 2017, as also Kyle Abbott to Kolpak; Morne Morkel and AB de Villiers in 2018; Duanne Olivier in 2019 (though he is back since) and Hashim Amla and Dale Steyn; Vernon Philander in 2020; and Faf du Plessis in 2021. That's a baker's dozen of players who held down spots in the team, so it's no exaggeration to say there has been an overhaul of the entire team. South Africa have also had five captains and five coaches in the last nine years, and CSA have been through five CEOs. So yes, Elgar had a point when he spoke about lack of stability. Which brings us to the drama.
From changing transformation targets, to a domestic restructure that was being challenged in the courts, to an administration on the brink of collapse, playing cricket in this country has never been only about what happens on the field. In the last two years that has been felt more acutely than ever before. In dealing with the aftermath of former CEO Thabang Moroe's suspension and subsequent firing, CSA have been forced to deal with one of the central issues of Moroe's term, which was a push for higher quotas.
Since 2016, the national men's team has been required to field six players of colour, including at least two black Africans, on average over the course of a season. Last year there was a move to push that up to seven players of colour, with a minimum of three black players, which was proposed by the old board and put in abeyance by the interim board. The new board is understood to be reviewing the targets, but for now, the status quo of six players of colour including two black Africans, remains.
Bearing the history, the clean slate, the retirement and the targets in mind, how will South Africa select an XI for the Test series against India?
Let's start at the top, where captain Elgar will partner Aiden Markram, who scored a career-defining century in Pakistan to shut out most other competitors for the spot. Sarel Erwee is in the squad as back-up. Keegan Petersen, who debuted in West Indies and scored 44 runs in three innings, should be given the summer to establish himself at No. 3, with the support and experience of Rassie van der Dussen one below him. Petersen will be looking over his shoulder, though, because in-form Ryan Rickleton, who also bats in the top order for his domestic team and has scored two centuries in his last three first-class games, has been included in this squad.
At No. 5, South Africa will welcome back vice-captain Temba Bavuma - he sat out the West Indies Tests with an injury - at the expense of Kyle Verreynne. But Verreynne won't be out for long. With Quinton de Kock set to miss at least one Test, but probably two, following the birth of his first child, Verreynne will be brought into the XI to bat in the lower middle order and keep wicket.
South Africa's tail probably starts a bit early, but their strategy of six specialist batters allows for an allrounder at No. 7. Wiaan Mulder has not been in the headlines much recently and was benched at the T20 World Cup but put in good performances in the last home summer, against Sri Lanka and will likely be entrusted with doing the same this season. He provides a fourth seam-bowling option, which gives South Africa a five-man attack and enough options.
Anrich Nortje's series-ending hip injury has ended the debate about which one of Lungi Ngidi and Duanne Olivier should be in the starting XI. It's likely they'll both be included despite Ngidi's five-month absence from competitive cricket. That will give South Africa their most experienced bowling combination, with Kagiso Rabada, Mulder and Keshav Maharaj making up the rest of the attack. Although there will be talk of an all-pace line-up, especially at Supersport Park and the Wanderers, Maharaj's role in the team, as both a container and a wicket-taker, has become so important over the last year in particular, it's unlikely South Africa will go in without him.
The only surprise could come if Ngidi is not yet passed as fit to bowl, considering the amount of time he has spent on the sidelines, and South Africa opt for Marco Jansen upfront. The tall, quick left-armer may also be something of a secret weapon on Highveld pitches, which is also where Sisanda Magala has domestic experience. Magala, Glenton Stuurman, Beuran Hendricks all bring variety to the attack but are probably not first choice at this stage, while spin-bowling allrounder Prenelan Subrayen and George Linde may be considered at Newlands, in Mulder's place.
That leaves South Africa's likely XI for the two Tests looking like this:
It includes five players of colour, of which three are black African, which misses the overall target but exceeds the black-African-player requirement. It is important to remember that the target does not apply on a match-by-match basis but over the season as a whole, so South Africa do not have to meet it exactly in every game. They can always "make up the numbers", for lack of a better phrase, in other fixtures. For example, in the first ODI against Netherlands last month, South Africa fielded eight players of colour, including three black Africans, and might well have kept that combination for the remaining two matches, which were postponed.
If this all sounds like an overly complicated way to choose a team, read some of the testimony from the Social Justice and Nation-Building hearings, when players like Aaron Phangiso spoke about being picked as a bowler and not bowling, and Ashwell Prince described being labelled a "quota" player despite being one of the best batters in the world at the time.
South Africa is a complicated place with a recent history of legalised racial segregation, and the effects of discrimination are still brazen. It is natural that everything about this country, including its sport, would be complicated as a result. But look at the likely XI above and see if there is anyone you think does not deserve a place there. You may have opinions about who else could be tried in a role, or arguments about a better combination, but on paper it's as strong a team as South Africa can field. It's a team that will collectively take a knee for the first time on home soil to show their commitment to the fight against racism, and it's a team that will have to chart the course for the future.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent