Captaincy is getting tough for Quinton de Kock
Skipper's woes show state of South African cricket, and the magnitude and multitude of roles they ask him to fill
"Get me outta here," Quinton de Kock seemed to gesture as he attempted to escape a toss-time interview. The technical difficulties and the repetition of who was in and who was out aside, de Kock had a real reason to want to run away. This captaincy thing is getting tough.
De Kock has been in charge for 10 T20s, and South Africa have lost seven of them. That is not necessarily an indictment on de Kock, it is an illustration of the state South African cricket finds itself in, and the magnitude and multitude of the roles they have asked de Kock to fill.
Not only does he have to open the batting and keep wicket (although Kyle Verreynne could relieve him of that if Verreynne ever makes it into the XI), but he also has to field pre- and post match questions, when it is clear public speaking is not his forte, and jump through South Africa's many selection hoops. He doesn't do the last of those alone and is doubtless being guided by coach Mark Boucher and the selection convener Victor Mpitsang, but it is quickly becoming the trickiest part of the job.
South Africa have had overt transformation targets since the Vernon Philander/Kyle Abbott drama at the 2015 World Cup and which they usually meet. They are required to field, on average over the course of a season, six players of colour of which at least two must be black African. That means tough decisions have to be made on occasion, like the one to bench Anrich Nortje for the series opener, for example.
Few other teams would have been able to excuse leaving out someone who clocked 156.2 kph on a speedometer a month ago, and the conditions at Newlands almost gave South Africa the reason they needed, but the threat Nortje posed immediately at Boland Park, suggested otherwise. Of course, there are all sorts of other combinations of the XI that could have seen Nortje slot in at Newlands (like playing Reeza Hendricks ahead of Pite van Biljon) but that causes other problems in the line-up like the one we saw today.
In order to play both Temba Bavuma and Hendricks in this match, they had to bat Hendricks out of place. Previously, Hendricks has opened in 92 of his last 93 T20 innings but today he came in at No.3. That may not be such a big deal except that it also pushed Faf du Plessis, South Africa's best batsman from Friday, to No.4. Du Plessis has not batted outside the top three in a T20I since the first game of the 2016 World T20.
And all that's is not even getting into what would need to happen if they also wanted to fit Janneman Malan in. The problem is that South Africa's squad is top-order heavy and middle and allrounder light which continues to leave them unbalanced. Then, layer the impact of the coronavirus and how that affects player availability and you have a perfect storm.
On Friday, du Plessis explained that the issue is that South Africa don't have enough allrounders, and in this series, that's true. Dwaine Pretorius is out with a hamstring injury. Andile Phehlukwayo, who is the other frontline two-in-one player is unavailable for selection at the moment. If not for George Linde, the margin of South Africa's defeats may only have been bigger. Other players they have to consider in the squad are Jon-Jon Smuts, who is in the squad and Wiaan Mulder, who is not. All but Phehlukwayo are white.
South Africa's franchises are not producing enough batsmen of colour and it is beyond the scope of this piece to analyse the various socio-economic or circumstantial reasons why. Suffice to say that Hashim Amla and JP Duminy's retirements have not helped, neither has overlooking Zubayr Hamza, who was the second leading run-scorer in the domestic one-day cup last season.
And that's just what's happened in the last 18 months. Historically, actions like taking Khaya Zondo on a tour to India and not playing him, even when an opportunity an arose, or not finding room to cap Henry Davids more than twice in T20Is can also be pointed out as examples of where a different decision may have resulted in an entirely different calibre of player being available for South Africa now. But it is not too late to start changing the way things are being done.
Of the batsmen of colour on the scene, apart from Hamza, there is at least one other player worth discussing. Sinethemba Qeshile played two T20s against Sri Lanka in early 2019 and does not have a huge amount of experience in domestic T20 cricket but is being talked about as one of the most exciting prospects for the future. Keeping him close to the national side won't hurt, and though it might not solve immediate problems, South Africa have to play the long game.
They can't say the same about this series, which is gone, or the questions that are going to be asked of some of de Kock's on-field decisions. On Friday, his choice to give Heinrich Klaasen an over, against Ben Stokes, opened the door for England's victory; today, the last-minute decision that saw Lungi Ngidi bowl the 18th over in place of Nortje all but ended the game.
T20 cricket is about these seemingly small decisions that ultimately make the difference between winning and losing. Get too many of them wrong, suffer too many defeats and suddenly a team that was able to explain mistakes away as part of the process of rebuilding is looking like one that can't get off the starting blocks.
De Kock is hamstrung by what is available to him. South Africa have gone into both matches with only five frontline bowlers which (and apologies for bringing him up again) du Plessis has repeatedly said is not enough. A team only needs one of those bowlers to have one bad over and the game could be lost. This series is a case study in that.
It's difficult to say what South Africa need more of apart from consistency from their quicks and the ability to land the yorker. In this match, they could also have used another over or two of spin and because it's unlikely they will have room for three spinners, a batsman who could turn his arm over would be useful. And we don't mean Klaasen. Smuts is a good candidate and has been overlooked so far, which may also have something to do with the top-heavy nature of the squad.
The dead-rubber might give South Africa the space to experiment with some of the combinations mentioned here and others we haven't thought of. But unless it brings a win, it probably won't allow de Kock to get any closer to piecing together the puzzle he needs to be complete in a few months, for the T20 World Cup. And the more the losses mount up, the more he might feel like he just wants to get out of the position he is in, and of all the things South Africa can ill afford, that is the biggest one.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent