Assessing South Africa's options for Test captaincy
Faf Du Plessis retired as captain of South Africa from Test and T20Is in February 2020, just before the global pandemic gripped the world and brought the sport to a standstill. After a great start to his time as the Proteas skipper, the last year wasn’t as fruitful for the 35-year-old.
During the 2019 ICC Men's Cricket World Cup, South Africa were knocked out of the semi-finals contention quite early in the tournament, after having managed just a single win from their first seven games.
Du Plessis soon called his time as skipper, with Quinton De Kock appointed as captain across the white-ball formats effective immediately. The wicket-keeper has grown into his new role quite comfortably, starring for his side against World Champions England in their first ODI series since they won the World Cup. He hit 107 as the hosts chased down England's 258-8 with 14 balls left. Following his debut against England as a white-ball captain, De Kock secured a 3-0 ODI series victory over visitors Australia in the subsequent series.
While the future of the Proteas seems set to continue under the helm of Quinton De Kock for the shorter formats, Cricket South Africa (CSA) is yet to decide on a captain for the longest format.
With former Test skipper and Proteas legend Graeme Smith now acting as the new director of the CSA, the board is expected to announce their decision as soon as world cricket is deemed fit to resume. Smith recently confirmed that Quinton De Kock will not be the Test captain, while not stating any clear candidates for the job as well.
With South Africa not scheduled to play any Test before touring West Indies in July and August, they have some time to decide who will lead them in the red-ball format.
And thus, the question that remains is; ‘Who will lead the Test side now?’
Graeme Smith himself was a gamble when he was made their Test captain at the ripe age of 22. He had played just eight Tests when he took over from Shaun Pollock but was one of the most prolific Test captains that the modern game has seen, leading the Proteas for 109 Tests for over 11 years, winning 53 of those matches. Under his leadership, South Africa soared to the pinnacle of the longest format of the game. He scored a record 15 Test hundreds as a captain. Another astounding record is that South Africa never lost a Test when Smith scored a hundred.
Many of their top players have recently announced their retirement, including Vernon Philander, Hashim Amla, AB de Villiers, Dale Steyn (from red-ball cricket), Imran Tahir (from ODIs) and JP Duminy which has seen the Proteas losing a substantial part of their leadership core. During the summer of 2019-20 season, South Africa fielded almost 33 players across all formats, giving debuts to nine players in Test cricket. Of these, those who impressed were; Rassie Van Der Dussen and Anrich Nortje.
And Van Der Dussen’s name came up as a potential Test captain after seeing his ability to handle pressure while maintaining a relatively consistent run rate.
At the 2019 World Cup, Rassie Van Der Dussen was South Africa's second-highest run-scorer behind du Plessis, and fourth-highest in the Test season after de Kock, Dean Elgar and du Plessis.
"The challenge for when we do play some cricket is to see who escalates themselves into really consistent performances and who steps up. Coming from a person who a risk was taken on, it is something we would consider," Smith said when asked about the South African Test captaincy.
These words rightly sum up the aforementioned option for the Proteas, as he has just four Test caps to his name and a solitary First-Class captaincy experience. Van Der Dussen is also a respected figure in the dressing room and oozes a sense of confidence, all attributes of being a perfect Test skipper.
Taking a calculated risk in this aspect is not a new phenomenon for the Proteas, who also have the likes of Temba Bavuma and Aiden Markram in the setup. While Bavuma has the experience of captaining the Lions franchise - who have won the First-Class title for the past two seasons - he was recently dropped from the Test side, before being recalled for the England Tests after a career-best 180. He, however, was unable to replicate the same form.
Meanwhile, Markram led South Africa to the Under-19 World Cup title in 2014, which is the only African nation’s second title in professional cricket till date. He was touted as the future senior men's team skipper but spent the majority of last summer on the sidelines with a fractured finger, incurred during the first Test against England at Centurion in December.
His return was more than meritorious, scoring two centuries in six domestic limited-overs matches and was in line to return to the Test squad before the suspension of the competition. However, no centuries in his last 38 completed innings for South Africa, regardless of format, makes him a less probable option for Test captaincy.
Among the aforementioned players, Markram is undoubtedly more talented than any of the other candidates, despite having had 30 fewer innings than Bavuma. His prowess at opening the batting in all his trips to the Test crease has helped scored three more centuries. However, Bavuma has made 421 more runs than Markram even though he has been shuffled up and down the order, having played in five different places in the top seven, including as an opener.
Another name in the bag is a seasoned First-Class skipper, Dean Elgar. He has 50 games as captain to his name, including nine at the helm of South Africa’s A team. He was also in charge at the 2006 Under-19 World Cup. Elgar is among the more experienced players of the lot, having represented the Proteas in 63 Tests, with an average of 38.49. He, in fact, has been a part of South Africa’s Test setup since November 2012, while Smith was still captain.
One more player who has willingly put his name into the mix is Keshav Maharaj, with the spinner putting himself into contention despite not being among the board’s initial candidates. "I really want to captain the Proteas. It's been my dream. Not many people know that, but those close to me know that I do want to captain the South African team across all three formats," Maharaj said.
While Maharaj's goals are ambitious, he has previous experience which might work in his favour. Maharaj led the Dolphins, in last season's one-day cup, where they were declared winners after the competition was suspended because of the global pandemic.
The Dolphins finished on top of the point tally with seven victories from 10 matches. Maharaj was their leading wicket-taker and fourth-highest overall. Batting wise, he hasn’t really been as prolific, but finished with the second-highest average for the Dolphins, scoring his maiden List-A half-century, which helped his team to a match-winning total in a low-scoring game against the Cobras.
The South African cricketing board has not set a deadline for the announcement of their new Test captain, but with cricket unlikely to resume for the next several months, they are in no hurry to hand out the armband, with Smith bringing his calm persona into his decision making for the CSA.
The new Proteas skipper will need to lead his team at the top, keeping in mind the many limitations to the team due to quota policies. With South Africa having underperformed massively at the World Cup and placed seventh in the ICC World Test Championship, the new skipper will need to be someone who can lead from the front, and who better than one of their greatest legends in Graeme Smith to choose the future skipper of South Africa’s Test team.