Aiden Markram, Theunis de Bruyn, Temba Bavuma and South Africa at a crossroads
South Africa could empty their bench in the third Test against India in Ranchi in a final attempt to find some answers from a series that has so far asked them questions at every corner. That means opener Zubayr Hamza and fast bowler Lungi Ngidi could play their second and fifth Tests respectively while wicketkeeper batsman Heinrich Klaasen is in line for a debut. It's also not out of the question that left-arm spinner George Linde, who was flown in as an injury replacement for Keshav Maharaj, could be capped as South Africa seek consolation from what has been a tough tour.
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Specifically, South Africa are looking to give their battered batsmen a break. Even though the entire top six can't be stood down, early indications are that as many of them as possible be rested, not necessarily dropped, from the last match.
"As a batter, when you are struggling, it is a difficult place to get out of," the captain Faf du Plessis said after the Pune loss. Perhaps it is a good opportunity to get some fresh heads into the team from a mental point of view. It can be a place where you're like, 'where is my next run going to come from?'. Maybe the best thing is for a player to take a breather and for someone else to come in with a fresh mind and take on the challenge in a once-off Test."
So who are the batsmen that South Africa will give a breather to?
Du Plessis put extra emphasis on the responsibility of the senior core, which includes himself, Dean Elgar and Quinton de Kock,which makes it unlikely any of them will be off the hook. That leaves opener Aiden Markram, who bagged a pair in Pune, No.3 Theunis de Bruyn, who has only gone past 10 runs once on tour, and No.4 Temba Bavuma, who is under pressure but appears on the cusp of some form after scoring 38 when he was moved down to No.5 in the second innings in Pune.
Of the three, Markram is the most likely to need to take a step back. His decision not to review an incorrect lbw decision against him in the second innings in Pune was a snapshot into his mental state. He is just not sure. Not sure which line the seamers are bowling, not sure what to do with his feet when the spinners are on, not sure how to build his innings and not even sure when he is not out. He is young, and immensely talented, and South Africa don't need him to carry any more scars. Drinks will do.
Though Bavuma has been in the spotlight for not producing runs, de Bruyn should also be under scrutiny. He has looked confident in patches but then lost focus and been dismissed. He has not managed a half-century in his last 10 innings and while, like Markram, he is talented, things are just not happening as they should for him. If both Markram and de Bruyn are benched, that will leave Bavuma with no choice but to play, which is probably an inevitable consequence of the situation he finds himself in.Ngidi is fine, he has been working hard on his fitness, trying to get his workloads ready for this heat. Obviously, he is a big guy so it's just making sure he comes back for his second and third spells
Faf du Plessis
South African cricket expects a lot from Bavuma. He was included in the T20 squad for this tour, appointed Test vice-captain and handed the most important job in the line-up, all with only one Test century to his name. Former captain Graeme Smith said on commentary that he thought du Plessis was "under pressure," to bat Bavuma at No.4. Smith did not say who was making that demand but it doesn't take much to make an educated guess. The administration at CSA is aggressively transforming in every department and while that does not mean Bavuma is unworthy of a place, it does mean they are placing big burdens on him.
Bavuma will have to play, and he knows he will also have to produce. Maybe it's no bad thing for him to think back to four years ago in India when South Africa had lost two Tests around a rained-out game and decided to get funky in the last match. Bavuma opened the batting in Delhi and impressed with his resolve. He is unlikely to be entrusted a job so out of place but could offer advice to Klaasen and Hamza, one of whom could open in Markram's place. The other will bat in the top-order and has a chance to stake a claim ahead of the home summer.
Then there is the bowling, where South Africa have been equally woeful. If they had two reserve quicks, it would have been prudent to give both Kagiso Rabada and Vernon Philander the game off, but they may not even have one ready replacement. Increasingly, it appears that Ngidi was included in the squad despite not being Test-match fit for Indian conditions, as du Plessis explained.
"Ngidi is fine, he has been working hard on his fitness, trying to get his workloads ready for this heat. Obviously, he is a big guy so it's just making sure he comes back for his second and third spells," du Plessis said. "His first spells have been very good. In this heat, you need a big tank so that you can bowl 18 to 24 overs a day. And as a big fast bowler that's not always easy. It's about getting his tank up and hopefully, if his tank is ready, we maybe put him in the mix in the last one."
But if its not, South Africa would be playing with fire by playing Ngidi, knowing his injury history and knowing they will need him for four Tests against England later in the year. The alternative would be to stack the side with spinners, which didn't work very well in Visakhapatnam, but choice is not a luxury South Africa have right now. Dane Piedt could come back in and Linde could debut, which may lessen the workload on whoever of Rabada or Philander is used to partner Anrich Nortje. It's far from an ideal attack, but this has been far from an ideal showing by South Africa.
After all, there's nothing to lose. Or is there?
The series is already gone, which would ordinarily present an automatic opportunity to ring in changes. But, in the new World Test Championship (WTC) era, there are 40 points up for grabs. That should prevent teams from using dead rubbers to experiment. But given the combinations available to South Africa, the conditions and the strength of the opposition, they may have to resign themselves to the likelihood that those points are gone too, and use this match to work out how they plan to put their first points on the WTC board in two months' time.