South Africa embark on their penultimate series of the current World Test Championship (WTC) this week when they depart for Australia. Australia lead the WTC points table, South Africa are in second-place and are playing their last three-Test series until they host Australia in 2026. If ever there is a time to make a statement about how seriously South Africa take Test cricket, this is it.
They're going in as ready as they can be, albeit not as ready as Australia. While the Sheffield Shield has had five rounds, South Africa's four-day first-class competition has had just three, which means opportunities for players to gain red-ball experience are becoming fewer. The tournament has shrunk to seven games per team per season (three fewer than the 10 they played two summers ago) and none of those matches will take place in the prime summer months of December and January. Most of the regular internationals play only a game or two a season.
In preparation for the Australia tour, the selectors instructed all but three of the Test squad to turn out for at least one match. A similar expectation may be placed on them ahead of the home Tests against West Indies in February 2023. Until then, this is what we can glean about the state of South Africa's red-ball game:
Heaps of tons
A Test line-up whose batters have only scored two hundreds between them in the current WTC cycle (dating back to July last year) will be thrilled that their domestic players have racked up 16 centuries in the 11 matches played in the first-class circuit, most of them scored by Test players. The rate of 1.5 hundreds per match is average for the South African summer but there have been some unusually big scores this season, including a triple-hundred and two double-hundreds.
Heinrich Klaasen and Kyle Verreynne, who are both in the Test squad, were the scorers of the 200-plus knocks. Western Province captain Tony de Zorzi hit 304* against Knights. Among the batters likely to be in the Test starting XI, all but Sarel Erwee and Rassie van der Dussen (who has made his comeback from a broken finger) have not scored hundreds. But Erwee made 76 in a rain-affected fixture last week. Khaya Zondo is also headed to Australia and has also not reached three-figures this summer, though he is likely to be a reserve player.
The most interesting case is Ryan Rickelton, who has reeled off two hundreds in a row but is not part of the Test squad. Rickelton played for South Africa in England, where he was also active on the county circuit, and picked up an ankle injury that will require surgery. He will only go under the knife later in the season, once the SA20 has been played, but CSA's selection policy of not picking players who are carrying niggle means he was not eligible for the Australia tour.
Simon Harmer's sizzling, but where are the quicks?
He leads the wicket-takers' list with 20 from three matches at an average of 18.40, including a 14-wicket match-haul against Lions at the Wanderers. Yes, you've read that correctly. An offspinner bagged more wickets than anyone else on South Africa's most seamer-friendly track in early summer, following weeks of rain. That says as much about the quality of Harmer as it does about the lack thereof in the fast-bowling department, which even Test captain Dean Elgar has commented on.
Speaking to reporters on the Highveld after Titans' win over Lions, Elgar revealed his worries that the seam bowling he faced in the competition is not up to standard and said he believes the emphasis on shorter formats has left bowlers lacking the conditioning to bowl long spells. "The bowlers' standards are not where they should be," Elgar said. "I think that's purely because the emphasis has been on white-ball cricket, which is taking away the disciplines needed for four-day cricket."
The best-performing seamer in Division One is Warriors' Beyers Swanepoel (who has 13 wickets), followed by two-time Test cap, Dane Paterson, and once-capped Beuran Hendricks, with 11 each. None of these players are in the squad to tour Australia. Glenton Stuurman, who is fifth on the list, was part of the traveling group but has been ruled out with an abdominal muscle strain. Lizaad Williams, his replacement, has the same number of wickets in the first-class competition - nine.
Of South Africa's frontline pacers, only Lungi Ngidi and Marco Jansen, played in the first-class competition and both only played one match. Ngidi bowled 22 overs in Titans' win over Lions, conceded 89 runs and had only the wicket of Sisanda Magala to his name. Jansen had a better outing, bowled 27 overs and took six wickets for 80. That means South Africa's quicks head to Australia largely under-bowled, especially in red-ball cricket, and without any real form to speak of. It is a more immediate problem than Elgar's concern about depth, though that will be something for the Director of Cricket to mull over.
Temba Bavuma, Kagiso Rabada and Anrich Nortje were exempt from participating in the first-class competition in the lead-up to the series for various reasons. Bavuma was given time off following the T20 World Cup, which he entered out of form and left with one of South Africa's worst tournament blow-outs on his hands. He has not played any red-ball cricket since South Africa's Test series against Bangladesh in March-April, where he scored two half-centuries in four innings.
Rabada has played in 26 of South Africa's 39 matches this year but only Keshav Maharaj has delivered more overs than him. Rabada has bowled 309.4 overs across all international formats - Maharaj's tally is 321.1 - and his workload continues to need careful management. Although Rabada did not have a good T20 World Cup, where he was South Africa's least profitable frontline wicket-taker and most expensive bowler, the selectors opted against asking him to find rhythm in the domestic set-up and allowed him to put his feet up instead.
The only other member of the Test squad who did not have to play in the first-class competition is Nortje. He was given an NOC to play in the Abu Dhabi T10. As South Africa's best bowler at the T20 World Cup, so there will be fewer concerns with him than some of the others.
South Africa depart for Australia on Thursday and will play one warm-up match before the first Test in Brisbane on December 17.