Cape Town - The Proteas, all at sea results-wise, are less than a month out from the start of a summer against England that gets underway with the Boxing Day Test at Centurion.
Cricket South Africa (CSA) is yet to appoint a Director of Cricket - something they desperately wanted to have done before the start of the series - and there is also no current Convenor of Selectors, though interviews for the role have been conducted.
Enoch Nkwe continues to operate as the interim Team Director, but as things stand there is uncertainty over who exactly will be assembling the squad for the four-match Test series.
Sport24 has stepped in through its two scribes in the form of chief writer Rob Houwing and cricket writer Lloyd Burnard to offer a solution.
In a game of 'let's play selector', Houwing and Burnard pick their not too dissimilar starting XIs for the Centurion Test.
Along the way, they realised that it was not a job they would like full-time ...
Selector Rob Houwing ...
The words “Ben Stokes” should be enough for the Proteas brains trust – bizarrely, we don’t currently know too much about their specific composition – to find their own, crucially team-balancing individual for the first Test at Centurion.
In order to field five bowlers without compromising too heavily on their vulnerable batting, perhaps the best solution lies in that increasingly compelling white-ball international all-rounder Dwaine Pretorius.
The tall Lions player has not previously been tried out in Tests – unlike rivals like Andile Phehlukwayo and Wiaan Mulder – but his temperament and body language are pleasing in his SA “greens” and he is thoroughly worth a stab, I believe, at No 7 in the longer-form game.
Yes, the Proteas might chew on fielding a seven-strong batting line-up and then just four bowlers, but I would be notably averse to that idea … largely, in this instance, on the grounds that so few members of their attack would have had extended spells of bowling in the undesirably Twenty20-dominated lead-up.
They will need five options on that front to be able to sustain suitable pressure and rotate their resources effectively; Pretorius is also well-acquainted with the demands of Highveld pitches, both with ball and blade.
In favour of Mulder, in fairness, he does sport an unbeaten 131 for SA ‘A’ against their Indian counterparts at Mysore in September; it might be decided he is the cab off the rank instead.
The relative shrinkage of the frontline batting to six, against that structural backdrop, spells hard luck, in my combination, for Theunis de Bruyn (averaging below 20 after a dozen Tests) and Rassie van der Dussen – the latter another limited-overs stalwart being touted by many as a potential bastion of necessary stability somewhere in the Test middle order.
That said, if the Proteas do decide that 7-4 is their best split after assessing conditions at SuperSport Park, either of those stroke-players coming into the XI would arouse few quibbles from me.
This side is offered on the risky assumption that Aiden Markram will have recovered from his self-inflicted hand injury in time for the start of the series (at his home ground), so able to resume his usefully right-left alliance at the top of the order with Dean Elgar.
But if he doesn’t make the fitness cut, my alternative opening specialist would be Reeza Hendricks, even if he would be a Test debutant against a frisky English attack.
Hendricks has put in the hard yards in all formats on the domestic scene, and the 30-year-old shouldn’t look a callow figure with well over 7,000 first-class runs already behind him. Again, too, he is someone well in the know about hard, northern surfaces in the country.
The one desperately close call in assembling my bowling arsenal was to decide between Anrich Nortje and Lungi Ngidi for a single pace slot.
In the end I opted for Nortje, despite his traumatic two Test baptisms in India, as he seems likelier at present to be able to sustain high pace for longer periods; the talented Ngidi has still been in a gradual recovery mode from longterm injury and needs plenty more miles in those beefy legs of his to regain optimum form.
That said, and particularly if the attack does end up staffed by five, it is quite possible the Proteas strategists will prefer Ngidi – hardly a crime against humanity.
Rob Houwing's team:
Aiden Markram, Dean Elgar, Zubayr Hamza, Faf du Plessis (capt), Temba Bavuma, Quinton de Kock, Dwaine Pretorius, Vernon Philander, Keshav Maharaj, Kagiso Rabada, Anrich Nortje.
Selector Lloyd Burnard ...
The Proteas go into the series as underdogs, but there will be a quiet confidence within the squad and a belief that they can get the job done on home soil.
South African cricket desperately needs them to, because there hasn't been good news on any front for some time now.
Selecting the starting XI for the Boxing Day Test – for whoever is eventually given that responsibility – is an incredibly difficult and unenviable task.
Dropping Temba Bavuma is something that I don't see happening, but a return of just 258 runs in 13 innings at an average of 19.84 in 2019 tells its own story of a man who has under-delivered for some time now.
Over the last three years he has played more than his fair share of innings-saving knocks, but the overall return hasn't been good enough and the start of a major home series seems the right time to go with somebody else.
It would not be a popular decision, but few could provide a counterargument based on numbers alone.
The highly-rated Rassie van der Dussen, who is averaging over 75 in the 4-Day Franchise Series this season, would make an overdue debut in the top order while the young and promising Zubayr Hamza would be backed for the series at No 3.
Aiden Markram is expected to be fit for December 26, but if he isn't then Reeza Hendricks comes in for a debut alongside Dean Elgar.
The obvious worry in this top order is inexperience, but that could also work in South Africa's favour at a time of renewal.
Dwaine Pretorius would be the other debutant in my side, in at No 7 as a genuine allrounder.
The 30-year-old has been a consistent performer for the Lions in all conditions and in all formats for a number of seasons now, and the fact that he has gone at less than two per over in the 4-day Franchise Series this season at an average of less than 20 shows that he is bowling with incredible control.
The absence of a genuine allrounder in Test cricket has crippled South Africa's depth with bat and ball for years, and I reckon that Pretorius has done enough to earn a crack at making that position his own.
Having five specialist bowlers also lessens the load for the likes of Vernon Philander, Kagiso Rabada and Lungi Ngidi, who I have picked ahead of Anrich Nortje.
Nortje is obviously a massive prospect for the Proteas, but if fully fit then Ngidi gets the nod for me based on a pre-existing pecking order.
It's a big IF, though, because Ngidi 's struggles with fitness are well-documented.
Bavuma has shown in the ongoing Mzansi Super League that he is in neat touch, but that is not enough.
There are other quality and deserving batsmen in South African cricket who have never been given a chance, and Van der Dussen is one of them. His BMT during the 2019 World Cup was there for all to see, and it has reached the stage now where he cannot be left out any longer.
Lloyd Burnard's team:
Aiden Markram, Dean Elgar, Zubayr Hamza, Faf du Plessis (capt), Rassie van der Dussen, Quinton de Kock, Dwaine Pretorius, Vernon Philander, Kagiso Rabada, Keshav Maharaj, Lungi Ngidi.