Cape Town – Nineteen days ... that’s what the embattled Proteas have to get themselves back shipshape from their 3-0 Test series whipping at the hands of India.
The first of four Tests against England begins at Kingsmead on Boxing Day, and there is inevitably going to be at least some psychological fragility lingering from South Africa’s heaviest series reverse in margin terms since Ricky Ponting’s Australia earned an identical outcome, on our shores, in March and April of 2006.
It has been a chastening few weeks for the world’s still top-ranked team, although the terrific fight they showed in the fourth innings in Delhi over the last couple of days – when a one-foot-on-the-plane feeling must have been almost irresistible – reminds you that they certainly can’t yet be branded “road-kill”.
Also worth remembering is that England (Ashes-holders, yet ranked fifth) arrive similarly off a series defeat, to Pakistan, in conditions to which they are not customarily suited.
Much soul-searching is nevertheless required by the Proteas in relatively little time if any bounce-back is to be swift and compelling.
The selectors and management of the team will have to strike a fine balance; mindful of the need not to panic, whilst replacing certain too-obviously broken springs in the side’s make-up.
Circumstance has to be taken into account in several instances – including bouts of truly awful, wrecking weather -- but it is also a cold fact that South Africa have not won a single Test match in six and England will believe they can prey on some vulnerability as a result.
A little scarily, it can probably be said that only one staple player in the entire team at present – the incredible AB de Villiers, a cricketer capable of both dazzling stroke-play and the limpet qualities of a Geoff Boycott – is consistently producing to levels anything close to known best standards.
This in a side which, only a couple of years ago, could summon any number of heavyweights from right nearby for major contributions if others around them happened to be coming up unusually short.
The positions of several incumbents are tenuous after the Indian series, although again consideration will have to be given by the selectors to how different – and hopefully much more agreeable – pitch conditions will be back home over the next few weeks.
They will need to remind themselves, too, that a developing batsman like Stiaan van Zyl, who also provides some shrewd occasional medium-pace fare, should not be judged too severely on his difficulties (and then axing) as a reasonably makeshift opener on maiden exposure to India.
The left-hander must still remain a strong candidate -- and remain in the greater Test squad at worst -- especially as outside of any deployment in the top two slots, his scores for the Proteas thus far read: 101 not out, 29, 33 and 36.
Those runs have all come either from No 6 or 7 in the order, where someone like the more hugely more experienced JP Duminy is struggling all too glaringly right now.
He got one run across two innings at Delhi, had not come to light earlier in the series either, and his overall batting average after 32 Tests has slipped to 32.92.
Six of his last 10 innings since a century against Sri Lanka at Galle in July 2014 have been single-figure scores.
But I fancy Duminy will be given a “last chance” ticket for the first couple of Tests against England – Kingsmead and home ground Newlands – with his off-spin a saving grace for now.
That is because I share the belief of Kepler Wessels, expressed in the SuperSport studio on Monday, that the Proteas will be hugely tempted to go in with seven batsmen and four pace bowlers in Durban, with part-time stuff only in the spinning department (Duminy and Dean Elgar).
There are obvious risks attached to that formula, but no single, specialist Proteas tweaker has quite yet made himself “undroppable” – potential is being shown by both Dane Piedt and Simon Harmer, but whether it is enough at this stage to warrant a fulsome enough role on our domestic tracks is debatable.
I have little doubt that Quinton de Kock is going to replace Dane Vilas as wicketkeeper; the latter showed some gritty resistance for a while at the crease in Delhi and was given a really rough tour to have to face these particular foes on for the first time, but statistically his batting simply does not justify his retention for the moment.
Room will also have to be made for Dale Steyn if he is completely over his nagging groin injury in time for Boxing Day, while it must be assumed that Vernon Philander is not going to make the cut for Kingsmead and only get a fitness green light later in the series.
Under that scenario, the Proteas ought to sport three changes for the first Test (Steyn, De Kock, and Kagiso Rabada coming in for Imran Tahir, Vilas and Piedt), and maybe even a fourth if it is felt someone like Duminy has run out of air miles ...
*My recommended team for Kingsmead: Dean Elgar, Temba Bavuma, Hashim Amla (capt), AB de Villiers, Faf du Plessis, Quinton de Kock, JP Duminy, Dale Steyn, Kagiso Rababa, Kyle Abbott, Morne Morkel.
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing