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A problem of plenty at the top, and plenty of problems elsewhere

While there is no shortage of openers ahead of the T20 World Cup, balance and death bowling remain major concerns

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
South Africa have plenty of questions to answer as they build towards the T20 World Cup  •  AFP/Getty Images

South Africa have plenty of questions to answer as they build towards the T20 World Cup  •  AFP/Getty Images

Is the timeline for a team in transition as long as a piece of string? In South Africa's case it seems to be.
In December 2019, when a new coaching staff was installed, they pled for patience as they sought to rebuild a team wrecked by poor administration and big retirements. Now it is April 2021, and South Africa have lost 8 out of 11 series under this regime. At least, they can't be faulted for trying things. They've capped six Test players, six ODI players and eight T20 players and are mining their depth to come up with a winning formula, which still seems some distance away.
With three World Cups in the next three years, South Africa need to get their white-ball combinations working quickly, and though this series has not given them much to celebrate, it has highlighted some areas that are working, and those that aren't.
Markram's white-ball comeback
Aiden Markram received what he called an unexpected call-up to the white-ball squads, and he wasn't even due to play in the T20Is, but Temba Bavuma's injury meant he was retained, and he rewarded the selectors for their persistence. Markram looked good in the ODIs but never made more than 39 but, seemingly freed from expectation in the T20Is, reeled off three successive fifties to finish as South Africa's leading run-scorer.
Markam's technical ability and shot repertoire were never in question but his temperament in the shorter formats was. Coach Mark Boucher thought the reason Markram didn't crack on from good starts was because "he sometimes feels that if he's not scoring at a strike rate of 140 he's holding up the team in some way." He struck at 182.65 in the T20Is, and although he didn't bat through an innings, he showed he can set the tone and accumulate quickly.
His partnership with Janneman Malan will give South Africa a good headache ahead of the T20 World Cup. When Bavuma returns from a hamstring injury, he will also lay claim to an opening spot, as will Quinton de Kock, who is currently playing in the IPL, and South Africa will have some interesting decisions to make about the composition of their top order.
Team Balance
South Africa's balance looked off in every match of this series, with their bowling supplies seemingly overstocked to the detriment of their batting. Boucher has long argued for more than five bowling options in a T20I, so there is cover if someone has an off day, but South Africa went into each game with at least seven options, and often didn't use them all. Andile Phehlukwayo not being used as a bowler in the second and third T20Is was mystifying, not least because he is one of their most celebrated operators at the death. It also meant the lower middle order began at No.6, which seemed too high.
If the only reason South Africa chose to arrange their combination that way was because of the absence of David Miller and injuries to Bavuma and Rassie van der Dussen, that may be an acceptable excuse, but they had a spare batter sitting in the dugout. Kyle Verreynne did not play a single T20I, ostensibly because he was included as a back-up wicketkeeper, according to Boucher, but his reputation suggests he is much more than that. Ideally, South Africa need six specialist batters before the allrounders and will want to rebalance the side for the T20 World Cup.
The fielding standards have slipped
South Africa dropped eight catches across the two white-ball series and did not prowl the outfield with the same intensity and menace as they are known for. Apart from de Kock's gesture to the non-striker's end when Fakhar Zaman was run-out by a direct hit at the wicketkeepers' end, there was a lack of ingenuity or inspired action as well. "Very poor" is how Heinrich Klaasen described it, while Boucher asked for his charges to show more "desperation".
Perhaps part of the reason for the fielding lapses was that the bowling was not as strong as usual and morale may have been low. South Africa have been heavy-handed with extras, with 16 wides and eight no-balls across the three T20Is, compared to two wides and a no-ball from Pakistan, and did themselves no favours in the discipline department.
The death overs
South Africa have yet to work out how to assert themselves at the end of the innings, with bat or ball. In this series, they conceded 9.95 runs per over in the last four overs, compared to Pakistan's 7.73. With the bat, this was South Africa's second-worst series of three or more matches in terms of death-overs scoring rate, behind the 5.54 they managed against Australia in a three-match series in Australia in 2014-15.
With ball in hand, South Africa have to decide who their best executors of yorkers are. In this series, they deemed it to be Lizaad Wiliams and Sisanda Magala, and overlooked Phehlukwayo until the final match. At the T20 World Cup, Phehlukwayo is likely to come back into the mix along with Lungi Ngidi, so that problem might be solvable. With bat, Miller could come into the conversation. Still, South Africa need other lower-order hitters and to assign those roles more clearly. Phehlukwayo and Linde are both sluggers and can go full throttle but only if there is a solid platform to build on. Overall, South Africa need to be clearer on their strategy and sharper in their execution.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent