Analysis

South Africa's big five questions: Captain, communication, pitches all on the to-fix agenda

South Africa, the Test team, are at a fork in the road - here's what they need to address to revive their results and reputation

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
09-Jan-2023
Some of South Africa's problems are structural, and others are just plain bad luck  •  Getty Images

Some of South Africa's problems are structural, and others are just plain bad luck  •  Getty Images

At least it is over. South Africa's first series defeat in Australia since 2005-06 ended with a glimmer of hope after they resisted being swept 3-0 in Sydney. But even as they saved face, they were forced to confront the uncomfortable truth that they have fallen behind the top Test teams.
"It's important for us to be honest with ourselves in terms of where we are," interim coach Malibongwe Maketa said. "As a country, we want to be competing against the top three [teams], but we don't have the Test caps that they have at the moment. We've done well against them in the past, and unfortunately now they are slightly better than us. We brought the best team that we had, and we didn't compete."
Some of South Africa's problems are structural - thanks to a first-class system with not enough fixtures and players who cannot successfully step up to international cricket - and others are just plain bad luck. After beating India at home this time last year, they have had one first-choice batter sit out of every tour since due to illness or injury, which has meant that their best line-up has not been able to play together.
You could argue that even if Keegan Petersen, Rassie van der Dussen and Temba Bavuma were all fit and firing at the same time, none of them even has a Test average above 35; you would be right in wondering if it would have made that much of a difference at all. The reality is that the deep-seated issues - lack of confidence, tough pitches, a weak domestic competition, and a scant Test schedule in the next cycle - cannot be solved by any one, or even three people, alone.
It needs, as Maketa put it, a full-scale "reassessment", and "the right processes in place". It needs change. This is South African red-ball cricket's fork-in-the-road moment, and there are some key areas they need to put in the spotlight to resurrect their Test fortunes.

The coach: two to succeed Mark Boucher


The change will start at the top with CSA due to appoint new coaches by mid-January following Mark Boucher's resignation last year. The role will be split in two, with the Test coach also playing an overseeing role in the domestic first-class set-up, and a white-ball coach to head the ODI and T20I teams.
Maketa was shortlisted alongside Adi Birrell, Shukri Conrad, Rob Walter, Lance Klusener and Richard Pybus. Interviews were conducted three weeks ago, and ESPNcricinfo understands a decision will be made in the next ten days, with Conrad and Klusener understood to be the front-runners for the roles of Test and white-ball coach, respectively. At least two of the candidates listed have other offers or jobs elsewhere, and would need CSA to make them an offer in the next few days if they are to accept.
There were no international names on the shortlist, which already says something about how attractive the job of coaching South Africa is (not very), and the kind of money on offer (not much compared with other countries).
Once head coaches are appointed, CSA can turn its attention to a technically-strong support staff. Currently, South Africa have Justin Sammons, Charl Langeveldt, and Justin Ontong as batting, bowling and fielding coaches, respectively, but other former players such as Vernon Philander and Hashim Amla may also come into contention. CSA will also need to find a High Performance head, as Vincent Barnes will be retiring later this year.

The captaincy: time to give Dean Elgar, the batter, some space?


Dean Elgar has been in charge for Tests for less than two years, after taking over in complicated times when the Quinton de Kock experiment failed. Though he is South Africa's most experienced Test player, was the obvious choice at the time and did a good rallying job upfront, the leadership appears to be taking its toll on his primary job: batting. Since being appointed full-time captain in March 2021, Elgar has not scored a single hundred, and averages 28.40, a serious drop from his average of nearly 41 when not playing as captain.
Apart from his form, there are other concerns with Elgar's leadership: from his knack of talking a much better game than he plays, to the way he manages his bowlers and field placings. Ian Chappell specifically dissected where Elgar went wrong in Australia, and it provides much food for thought about how Elgar has handled situations in other series.
On the England tour in mid-2022, a stand-out blunder - though it was not Elgar's alone - happened on the morning of the second Test in Manchester, when South Africa changed their winning combination from Lord's to select a second spinner which turned out to be a complete misjudgement. Their team composition then forced them to bat first on a seamer's surface, and the rest is history.
South Africa's entire leadership structure needs a relook, with Bavuma a poor choice as T20I captain - and even as a player in the format - and better suited to longer-format leadership. It is plausible that Bavuma could be moved to lead the Test side - although it's also worth remembering that he has not scored a second Test century since his first one came in January 2016 - while someone like David Miller could take over both the short-format teams. That would free Elgar up to do what he does best: score runs.

The top six: proactivity needed in the era of Bazball


If Elgar and Bavuma are to be retained for now, the only other batter that should be part of future plans is Kyle Verreynne. He is the only member of the top six that is under the age of 30, and has shown glimpses of the talent that sees him boast a first-class average of over 50. Verreynne is a modern batter who is aggressive against the short ball as also against spin, and is fearless in playing his strokes, qualities which the rest of South Africa's top six lack.
They are made up of slow starters, steady blockers and those with a defensive mindset which may have worked in Test cricket a decade ago, but is simply not the way the game is being played at the moment. If South Africa are to keep up with the pace of Test cricket and join the Bazball-style revolution, they need batters who can score runs at a higher tempo, take risks and advance the game.
Of course, the likes of Tristan Stubbs and Dewald Brewis need to rack up some numbers in first-class cricket before they can be fast-tracked into the national set up; but already, Tony de Zorzi, Jordan Hermann, Matthew Breetzke and Ryan Rickelton should be looked at.
And speaking of Rickelton, our next point...

Communication: CSA falling behind in this game


Perhaps even weaker than South Africa's batting is CSA's lack of clear communication, and Rickelton is a case in point. After debuting - without shooting the lights out - at home against Bangladesh, Rickelton picked up an ankle injury after the England tour that requires surgery but can be managed for now. He opted to delay going under the knife, in the hope he could play this summer: in Australia, at the SA20 and against West Indies. He was wrong.
When CSA found out about the injury, it opted not to take him to Australia for fear that if it worsened, it would not be able to fly a replacement out in time. So far, so good. Except that in a baffling press statement, CSA said that Rickelton "has an ankle injury that forced him to be overlooked by the national selectors, but allows him to still be picked by his domestic team".
At best, that is clumsily worded. At worst, it is a way of deflecting from revealing the full story - something the board did with Lizelle Lee's retirement, and which it routinely does with selections that are made with transformation targets in mind - and creates a culture of distrust among players and fans. And it blew up badly for CSA when Rickelton then went on to score four hundreds - two each in first-class and List A cricket - across five matches. He may not be the saviour the Test team needs, but having him at home just looked bad.
The players are understood to be frustrated by a lack of clarity in the communication, and have - through their association - asked for improvement. That includes a relook at the first-class structure, because they all recognise it is not fit for purpose.

The pitches: less spice for more reward


It is a well-worn trope that South African surfaces are some of the toughest - if not the toughest - to bat on in the world, and have bred a generation of batters who cannot play free-flowing and high-octane cricket. And so there have been calls for that to change. Maketa is among those who has advocated for less-hostile domestic pitches to produce better international batters.
"With the younger batters, do we expose them to better wickets to get enough runs to perform at this level, or do we say that we are a team that's going to win at home and we make it difficult for people coming?" Maketa said.
"We come here, and on good wickets, our control is going to be challenged. If we are comfortable to win at home, we can leave it the way it is, but we want to be successful all around the world. To win the World Test Championship, you have to come here [in Australia] and win; you have to go to India and win. We don't want to be a team that only wins at home."
CSA has recognised this, and is making a concerted effort to make domestic pitches less spicy to encourage more run-scoring. The number of hundreds produced in the first-half of the four-day competition this season - 16 - shows it is paying off. But it is only the start. It will likely take several seasons for this change to bear fruit.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent