South Africa are already without their best batter since the start of 2021, Temba Bavuma, for their three-Test series against England, and are hoping they won't have to be without their best bowler too. The first Test begins on August 17 at Lord's.
Kagiso Rabada is in a race against time to recover from an ankle injury and get his bowling loads up to play in the opening match at Lord's next week. Both coach Mark Boucher and captain Dean Elgar have said Rabada's availability is a "top priority" for the team.
"He has bowled since we started our camp in Canterbury. Obviously, workload is the biggest concern - whether he can carry himself throughout a Test match with the intensity and volume of overs in a day's play. For now, he is doing all the right things," Elgar said, addressing the media for the first time since his arrival in England. "I can't say yes or no (to whether he will play) as yet. There are eight or nine days before the first Test and it's high on our list to get him fit and going."
Should Rabada, who has taken 46 Test wickets at 20.06 in the last 19 months, not be cleared to play, it will likely open the door for Anrich Nortje to make a return after missing out on more than a year's worth of Test cricket with a back and hip injury. Nortje picked up the problem at last year's T20 World Cup and came back at the IPL and in subsequent white-ball series for South Africa and has looked back to his best. He was South Africa's leading wicket-taker in the recently completed ODIs against England and is bowling at good speeds of up to 150kph. "It's great to have Anrich back. The way he is bowling in the nets and the way he bowled in the white ball game is good for us. He brings a lot of pace to the table," Elgar said.
In the batting department, they are missing the consistency of Bavuma, who has scored 696 runs in 10 Tests since January 2021, and averages 46.40 in that period. Bavuma is out of the entire tour with an elbow injury, leaving the white-ball sides without their leader and the Test squad sans their vice-captain and Test No.5.
"Temba's injury has been a massive setback for all of us. In Test cricket he has been brilliant," Elgar said. "We have three guys up for that position: Aiden Markram, Rassie van der Dussen and Khaya Zondo. Whether we go for experience or if we are going to go with a guy who is inexperienced at Test cricket, is still a discussion we need to have. We still have quite a few days until that decision has to be made but we do have resources."
Markram may be surprised to hear his name in that conversation because he said earlier on the tour that he is not expecting to play the Tests and that the idea of him batting in the middle order had not yet been broached. Van der Dussen may have though his role fairly safe, though he was among those who chose the IPL over the Bangladesh series in March-April and has not scored a Test fifty in 10 innings. Zondo would be the option if South Africa are going for fresh blood. He made his debut as a concussion substitute in the Bangladesh series after a domestic season that featured his first double ton, but there is someone else Elgar didn't mention: Ryan Rickelton.
After finishing third on the domestic four-day run charts, with three centuries from five matches, Rickelton was included in South Africa's Test squad that toured New Zealand and made his debut in the home series against Bangladesh. He chalked up 114 runs in four innings, and showed an aggressive streak to his approach in a one-sided series and has gone on to impress in the County Championship. Rickelton has played four matches for Northamptonshire and scored 539 runs, including two hundreds and four fifties, at an average of 77.00, and should come into the discussion to fill the vacancy left by Bavuma.
At the least, Elgar suggested Rickelton has given the selectors a conundrum. "The biggest thing with Ryan is that he was given an opportunity and I felt he took the opportunity with both hands. He has done everything the right way. He has put the numbers on the board," Elgar said. "He has done everything to give the selectors a bit of a headache but it's a good headache to have if you have guys coming in and contributing the way he has."
That means South Africa's middle order will take on a slightly unfamiliar look with two of van der Dussen, Markram, Zondo, and Rickelton batting before wicketkeeper Kyle Verreynne. They may even opt for just one of those specialist batters and create room for two spinners, with both Keshav Maharaj and Simon Harmer in the squad. The pair played together in late summer conditions in South Africa against Bangladesh and took 29 wickets of the 40 wickets on offer and Elgar said it's not out of the question that South Africa will field both of them again. "Playing Simon and Keshav together was about giving us more options coming to the UK and other tours going ahead. Those are resources we need to use if the conditions allow it. It's by no means off the table that they might start again," he said.
While South Africa will have the opportunity to trial and tinker with their combinations in a four-day match against the Lions that starts in Kent on Tuesday, they will also be considering how to counter England's new aggressive approach. Asked what he thinks of Bazball, Elgar was typically detached and chose to concentrate on his team instead. "Good for them. They've obviously taken a few risks along the way and it's paid off," he said.
"Conditions have a massive role to play with regards to that style of cricket. I'm not too concerned about the way they have gone about their things of late. The biggest thing for me is to focus on my team. It's been an interesting style and caused a few conversations around the world but I'm not too concerned about that."