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Analysis

Test future fuzzy for South Africa as SCG challenge looms

Recent results and future schedules don't bode well for South African red-ball cricket, but there's still a WTC final for this aging line-up to fight for

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
03-Jan-2023
Dean Elgar and his batters have been sweating it out in Australia  •  Getty Images

Dean Elgar and his batters have been sweating it out in Australia  •  Getty Images

Is this the beginning of the end of South Africa's status as a top-tier Test nation?
It may seem like an overly dramatic question considering they remain in the running for the June's World Test Championship (WTC) final but the picture leading up to and beyond that is bleak. The Sydney Test concludes the last three-Test series South Africa will play until 2026, with two-Test rubbers scheduled for the entire 2023-2025 WTC cycle. South Africa are due to play only four Tests in 2023, three of them before March and one in the last nine months of the year. Between now and 2027, they will not play any Tests in England or Australia - two of their biggest opponents - and only have one series in India.
Although South Africa was never among the "Big Three", thanks to the historically strong form of their Test team they were regarded as only just below that level - in terms of both reputation and as a revenue-generators - but their recent poor results and the new schedule marks a sea change. It's clear that in South Africa, attention on the Test team is slipping as focus shifts to the new T20 league, the SA20, which starts in a week's time. Adverts for the tournament are splashed all over the local coverage of the ongoing Test series and, undoubtedly, it's all a whole lot sexier than what's going on Down Under. With a Test line-up that struggles to string together 200, how can it not be?
South Africa's batting struggles are well-documented and even fairly well-understood. The first-class structure, which has shrunk from 10 matches per team per season to seven that are played outside of the prime summer period, has not been able to produce enough batters who can make the step up to international cricket smoothly and that is unlikely to change soon. It means the development of the longest format is at risk but South Africa's players are powerless to change that and Test captain Dean Elgar knows it.
"I don't think a lot of things go in our favour, but we've got to deal with what we can deal with. The disappointment that we aren't playing more Tests this year sits with a lot of players. They would like to be playing a lot more," he said, ahead of the third Test against Australia. "We can't make those decisions, it would be nice if we could have a massive influence in that but I guess the administrators feel we need to establish something in order to have revenue going forward. Maybe in a couple of years time we can incorporate more Tests going forward."
In 2024, 2025 and 2026 South Africa are due to play nine Tests a year, which is more the quantity they are used to, but there are both questions and concerns about what the state of their red-ball game will be by the time they get to that point. At least we can conclude that it will be fairly different to the outfit that's in use now.
Elgar is 35 and under some scrutiny as a batter, having not scored a century in his last 31 Test innings, and may well not be around through that entire period. Neither will most of his top six. Of the specialist batters South Africa took to Australia, only Kyle Verreynne is under 30 and none of them have a Test average over 40. That means the next few Tests, potentially even the next one, could be one of the last opportunities for these batters to make a case for sticking around.
"The disappointment that we aren't playing more Tests this year sits with a lot of players. They would like to be playing a lot more."
Dean Elgar
"Talk is cheap at the moment and we need to go out and perform. Action is where we are at the moment and we need to make amends," Elgar said. "It's very frustrating knowing that we've brought along players who are really talented and unfortunately it hasn't gone our way this time. We've had quite a few injuries, especially in our batting, but guys have to take their opportunities when they come their way. I see this Test, and we have two more coming up at home against West Indies, as massive opportunities for those guys if they get those chances to play."
While some focus will be on Elgar, his opening partner Sarel Erwee (who has has a habit of playing loosely outside off stump) and his vice-captain Temba Bavuma (who admitted he needs to add to his sole century scored six years ago if the team is to do better), there will also be a spotlight on whoever replaces Theunis de Bruyn. The candidates are Rassie van der Dussen, who debuted three years ago and was establishing himself as one of South Africa's most reliable players but has since fallen away, and Heinrich Klaasen, who smashed a 240-ball 292 in a first-class match in the lead-up to this series. With regular No.3 Keegan Petersen on the road to recovery after tearing his hamstring last year, van der Dussen or Klaasen have to put in a big performance to keep themselves in contention for the Test side.
On the eve of the match, Elgar was unsure which one would be in the XI, and South Africa may even make room for both if they feel confident enough with four bowlers. "Rassie's had quite an extended period at the Test level so you can look at it, that he brings more experience to the role. Then you look at a guy like Henrich who is immensely talented and maybe deserving of a chance - an extended chance as well," Elgar said. "Hopefully whatever do we can put on a better spectacle than the last two games."
The last four, in fact. South Africa have been bowled out for under 200 in seven of their last eight Test innings and have failed to show any of the fight they are famed for. And their attack has not been able to keep them in it. But there is, at least for now, some hope that they are not going to fade away entirely because victory in Sydney and a clean sweep against West Indies in March will put them in contention for the WTC final. For Elgar and the rest, who know wholesale changes could be coming soon, it means there's something to play for.
"We've also got a lot to play for with regards to that final in June. That's a massive incentive for us. For me, you play every Test like it's your last," he said. "I think over the next two years we only have 12 [it is, in fact, 13] to play. Many years ago we played 12 Tests a year which was nice. Whether you get six, eight or ten Tests a year you have to make the utmost for those opportunities. We need to throw everything at it, whether six or 14, every game needs to be played like it's your last."

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent