7:22 AM ET
Hashim Amla will miss South Africa's limited-overs tour of Australia in November as he is given time to fully recover from a finger tendon injury ahead of a busy home summer and the World Cup next year.
While South Africa are yet to announce their squad for three ODIs and a T20I against Australia in early November, coach Ottis Gibson confirmed that Amla would not be making the journey.
"As a selection group we've discussed that with him already," Gibson said. "We're going to give him as much time as possible to get himself ready for the next set of cricket he's got coming up."
Amla's continued absence means that there will be further opportunities for other batsmen to stake a claim at the top of the order in Australia, but Gibson warned that for World Cup hopefuls, "the window is closing".
"For the last 12 months we've been looking at players, and for the next couple of months the window is closing," he said. "We're getting closer and closer to the guys who we want on the journey."
South Africa last played bilateral ODIs in Australia four years ago, at the start of a season that included the 2015 World Cup. Amla and Quinton de Kock were established as an opening pair by then, and have since formed one of South Africa's best ever opening partnerships, having scored nearly 4000 ODI runs together including the country's largest stand of all time, their 282-run demolition of Bangladesh last year.
With Amla injured and de Kock rested for the ODIs against Zimbabwe, South Africa trialled Dean Elgar, Aiden Markram and Reeza Hendricks as openers. While Elgar flunked the audition with single-digit scores, Markram and Hendricks put together 75 in the third ODI and Gibson suggested that despite the tricky pitches played on, "we know where we are with those two".
"We know that Quinny and Hashim has been a fantastic opening pair for the Proteas for a long time, and we also know that Reeza Hendricks and Aiden Markram have also been very good in franchise cricket," Gibson said. "The wickets at the start of the series, especially in one-day cricket were a bit tough for batting, so from that point of view we didn't get to see as much as we would have liked, but we know where we are with those two."
Gibson's assessment of his top order during the one-dayers against Zimbabwe was made a little more difficult by some erratic early season pitches, particularly in the second ODI in Bloemfontein when a returning Dale Steyn had Zimbabwe's batsmen ducking and fending during a spell that bordered on outright dangerous. The pitch in Kimberley was also of an entirely different character than expected - the last time South Africa had been there, de Kock and Amla had flattened Bangladesh with that record opening stand.
"It's early season and you don't want to be too harsh on groundsmen, but from the players' point of view it's obviously disappointing," Gibson said. "Because whilst we're creating opportunities, we still need to have decent facilities to play on. I guess a place like Kimberley, where you probably only have one game a year, you've only got one opportunity to get it right and they probably didn't do it as well as they could. But saying that, it's always been a good facility. Last year we got 280 for 0 in Kimberley. They've obviously had some challenges over the winter, and that can happen.
"The wicket in Bloem actually looked a good wicket. It always looks good until you play on it. And when we played on it Dale had his tail up that night. Some kept low, some bounced, which is not what you want when you're trying to stake a place in the team."
Unless you're a bowler, that is. While the capricious pitch certainly added to the slightly macabre theatre of Steyn's bone-rattling spell at the terrified Zimbabweans, Gibson admitted that a fit, firing, frightening Steyn was an "exciting" sight.
"The real exciting thing for me was watching Dale Steyn bowl in Bloem," he said. "It was fantastic to see him bowling at that level again and bowling that quickly with that skill and accuracy. That's a real exciting one."
There have also been some compelling performances in the T20s, with Rassie van der Dussen cracking a debut fifty and Robbie Frylinck showing how effective he might be as a limited-overs change bowler. Gibson didn't rule out the possibility that outstanding performances in the upcoming Mzansi Super League or franchise cricket could lead to a "wild card" selection for the 50-over World Cup.
"The convener will have up his sleeve, if you're thinking about the Ryder Cup (where coaches will pick wild card players), he might have a wild card pick and there's always an opportunity for somebody to put themselves in the picture. If Rassie or whoever else goes and really tears up the Super League with performances, then it might make that person hard to ignore. There's still an opportunity if you've not played this season to do that in franchise cricket."
Indeed, the boldness demanded by the T20 format is similar to the formula and style of play South Africa are attempting to shoehorn into their one-day cricket, and what might make a player attractive to South Africa's ODI thinktank is a willingness to play "un-South African" cricket. Whether that means dropping conservatism for adventure at the top of the order, or stacking a bowling attack with two wristspinners to accompany the quicks, it's the sort of cricket Gibson wants his team to play.
"When we were in Sri Lanka, one of my friends who's South African said it's a little bit un-South African to be trying to play so many shots so early and you need to build an innings. But you can still build an innings being positive, which we did in the first couple of games. The key then becomes having the will to stick with it when things get tough.
"That's the only way we're going to move forward as a batting group, and obviously within that there will be mistakes and you just have to take those on the chin as long as you believe you're doing is the right thing. And make sure you do it better next time."