The Proteas returned from Sri Lanka with enough questions to occupy the 287 sleeps left before they embark on yet another World Cup.
Once again it is a campaign that will no doubt be loaded with expectation and trepidation.
Over the next nine months, South African selectors will have to formulate a squad capable of history defying feats in a country where the ghost of Edgbaston 1999 still lingers.
World Cups have been the bane and fantasy of many Proteas players in the past; a stage where opportunities were won and lost in the most creative and eccentric of ways.
But this is a new generation of South African cricketers, some of whom could barely walk in 1999 when Allan Donald couldn’t run against the Aussies in that fateful semifinal.
Generation Z touched down on home soil on Wednesday after a lukewarm tour of Sri Lanka, knowing they have unearthed some of the questions that will need answering in the months to come.
An ODI series victory after an embarrassing drubbing in the preceding Test series will warm their hearts, but the manner in which they capitulated in Colombo in the fifth and final match of the ODI series, even with the series wrapped up, will annoy the team management, who would have hoped for a greater show of character and ruthlessness.
Instead, they lost six wickets for just 36 runs and were bowled out in just 24.4 overs, with only stand-in captain Quinton de Kock (54) displaying any kind of resistance to Sri Lanka’s spin wizard Akila Dananjaya (6/19).
South Africa are currently in an experimental phase when it comes to the ODI format.
Granted, South Africa are currently in an experimental phase when it comes to the ODI format, and used the Sri Lanka series to blood as many World Cup contenders as possible. Such an approach comes with risk, and it showed.
And while they develop a broad base from which to choose a World Cup-winning team, the overarching question for the Proteas going into England and Wales 2019 will be how they find balance between a core group of players performing their swansong in the ODI game and a brash bunch of youngsters bursting with talent, but who may still be unripe when the tournament gets under way next May.
For all their talent, Junior Dala, Willem Mulder and Lungi Ngidi may not have enough to take the pressure off Kagiso Rabada in the big, match-winning moments in the opening match against England at The Oval. Rabada will no doubt do the business, but the absence of another fast bowler he can build an alliance with at the other end will be felt at the World Cup level.
All-rounder Andile Phehlukwayo has emerged from the tour of Sri Lanka with his reputation as a strong finisher intact. He will ply his trade in the important dying moments, an area where South Africa have traditionally come unstuck. They need strong and calm heads.
[E]even for a player like Hashim Amla, who is the epitome of calm, consistency has been elusive.
But even for a player like Hashim Amla, who is the epitome of calm, consistency has been elusive. Even though a fit Amla is certain to play in the World Cup, an out of form Amla is always a worry. He’s a good player to have around in the high-pressure environment of tournament cricket, but he must somehow regain the desire to deliver on the big stage.
JP Duminy has made a strong case for himself with some match-winning performances of late, and captain Faf du Plessis will be willing to put it all on the line, even if his body isn’t.
Experience matters in a World Cup – or does it? South Africa’s premier Test bowler seems to think so. Dale Steyn’s ODI career looks to be all but over if it weren’t for his spirited talk of a comeback. In a veiled message to the selectors, if ever there was one, he was quoted as saying: “If you look at our top six batters, those guys have all played 800-plus games. But if you look at our bowling, our bottom four, they have probably played 150 games.”
Steyn is determined to take his place in the team but hasn’t played an ODI in two years. His value to South Africa’s inexperienced bowling attack will be critical at the sharp end of the World Cup, but it’s a fine line to tread. What if he breaks down again or doesn’t find form? Will the reward outweigh the risk in a tournament that has shown scant regard for the Proteas’ brand of “brave” cricket?
And what of Vernon Philander, who has pretty much been forgotten in the ODI format? When the World Cup rolls around, all bets are off and every capable player believes he is in with a shot – and rightly so. The fact that Philander is South Africa’s undisputed king of swing may work in his favour under ideal conditions for swing bowling in the UK.
South Africa go into a major tournament without AB de Villiers for the first time since he made his ODI debut in 2005. It’s difficult to give up the greatest limited-overs batsman ever without facing serious withdrawal symptoms, but by the time the World Cup begins, the absence of De Villiers should not be a factor, and the middle order should (presumably) have settled into a formation.
De Villiers’s legacy, however, cries out for a game-changing batsman in the middle order who is able to dominate bowling attacks – bully them even. It may take a while for such a player to emerge from the current crop, but there are still nine months to go for the likes of Heinrich Klaasen, David Miller or someone new to make a play for that role.
Tabraiz Shamsi proved his worth in the Sri Lanka ODI series with a match-winning performance in the first match in Dambulla. On slower wickets in the UK, he’s certainly a contender for a spinner’s berth if he remains consistent and fit. Keshav Maharaj’s impressive performances in Tests have probably earned him an opportunity to turn his World Cup dream into reality.
Both Maharaj and Shamsi will have to show they have more to offer than Imran Tahir, who would also put his hand up. The allure of playing in a World Cup attracts any number of players who believe they hold the key to success where scores of others have failed.
The veterans, the upstarts, and the no-hopers will all put their hands up, but finding those combinations over the next nine months will be a painful and complicated labour for South African cricket selectors, and no doubt more sleepless nights.