South Africa women's captain Dane van Niekerk and allrounder Chloe Tryon have been ruled out of the upcoming ODI and T20I series at home against Pakistan as they recover from back injuries. A third player, who cannot be named because of doctor-patient confidentiality, will also miss the series after testing positive for Covid-19.
The rest of the squad have all returned negative Covid-19 tests and have entered a bio-bubble in Durban. All six matches will be played at Kingsmead, after it was initially announced that one ODI and two T20Is would take place in Pietermaritzburg. The change is likely to ensure that the teams are back in Durban before South Africa's Covid-19 curfew at 9pm, and to avoid the teams needing to visit another venue.
"Both Dane and Chloe sustained lower back injuries in September and both are [at] different stages of rehabilitation. They are progressing well but will not be available for this series," Tshegofatso Gaetsewe, South Africa's team doctor, said. "They are doing well - just not eligible for this tour. Everything about their rehabilitation is on track."
Marizanne Kapp, who suffered a health scare during the WBBL when she was taken to hospital with an elevated heart rate, has returned to full fitness and is part of the team's camp. "She is in good condition and her health issues have been taken care of. Anything subsequent that she needs she will get but for now everything is ok. She is in good health and we don't anticipate any problems," Gaetsewe said.
Coach Hilton Moreeng described the absence of van Niekerk and Tryon as a "very big setback", especially because of the scarcity of fixtures on the calendar, with the Pakistan series the only confirmed matches for South Africa in 2021 so far.
"One reason is that you don't know how the year is going to pan out because of the virus," Moreeng said. "When there is an opportunity to play cricket you want to have all your best players available because you don't know when you're going to have another opportunity. From another perspective, the players who are going to get opportunities can show what they can do and that will make us stronger."
The team management is yet to confirm a captaincy replacement with Suné Luus among the candidates to replace van Niekerk. Luus has led the side in ten ODIs and nine T20Is between 2017 and 2019, including in a series against Pakistan in which the ODI trophy was shared and South Africa won the T20Is 3-2.
"We know in the past Suné Luus did a really good job but it is something that will be discussed closer to the time," Moreeng said. "For now, we are just making sure we get everyone prepped for the upcoming series."
South Africa have not played as a team since the T20 World Cup in March last year but eight of the 14 nationally contracted players have been in action in the WBBL and the Women's T20 Challenge, which gave them some match time. South Africa had a home series against Australia and an away tour to the West Indies postponed while they were unable to accept an invitation from England to tour in August-September because of lockdown restrictions in South Africa at the time.
Moreeng and the rest of the support staff used the time to mine the talent pool and broaden the scope of players that could turn out for South Africa in future. "When the pandemic broke it was frustrating because it was on the eve of Australia coming to play on our shores but then it was our offseason it gave us an opportunity to work with players and see our depth," Moreeng said. "It gave us a good indication of what we have in reserve. We've now got a squad of players that we have been working with for the last four or five months. We've had a warm-up game, we've had camps but we can only prepare for so long. Now, we have an opportunity to see where the squad is."
The long layoff means that Moreeng is being careful not to create too many expectations around the series and is instead seeing it as an opportunity to begin building towards the 2022 ODI World Cup in New Zealand, which South Africa have already qualified for. "The most important thing for us is the opportunity to play cricket. It's been almost a year that we haven't had competitive cricket. For us it's just to get to the park first and then we can start thinking about the way forward."
Pakistan have not played since meeting South Africa at the Women's T20 World Cup last year in Australia and will need to play in a World Cup qualifier to attempt to secure a spot at the tournament. They also have a home series against England confirmed for October this year.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent