Age will not wither the debate about youth versus experience
Zubayr Hamza and Pieter Malan are at different ends of the spectrum, but both deserve a Proteas look-in
Now that the minor fanfare of Zubayr Hamza being the 100th Proteas Test representative since 1992 has died down, the merits of his selection will be debatable.
Like most selections, they can be objective and subjective within the same breadth. However, one thing that can’t be easily disputed is the foresight of the national team selection group led by Linda Zondi.
If one looks at the four-day franchise run scoring charts, the average person would fail to understand why Hamza was picked ahead of teammate Pieter Malan. It’s actually quite straightforward: Malan’s an opener and Hamza occupies the number four/five spot. Those positions require different technical and mental approaches.
Both are skilled batsmen who have displayed through their weight of runs in the past two seasons that they deserved a national team crack. This is where age becomes a determining factor in selection.
It is easy to say Malan was hard done by when he missed the starting 11 boat for the third Test against Pakistan, but at 30 he’ll only be a stopgap option until a better younger player comes along. We saw this happen with Heino Kuhn, whose first-class form was finally rewarded with a call-up for the England tour in 2017.
In conditions where James Anderson, Stuart Broad and Toby Roland-Jones reigned supreme, he was the 2017 version of Gerrie Liebenberg, the 1998 Free State opener during the England tour who was way out of his depth at Test level.
Malan is also a victim of circumstance as Aiden Markram looks set for a rosy future at the top of SA’s order, while Dean Elgar’s track record makes him undroppable. Markram is only 24 and already has more than a 1,000 Test runs to his name. Elgar turns 32 this year and remains a reasonable captaincy prospect for the next two to three years, further blocking Malan’s path despite the latter’s excellent first-class numbers in the past three seasons.
Hamza, 25, not only has the benefit of age, but a tenuous middle-order spot that Theunis de Bruyn has not quite made his own in the past year or so.
There is also the significant matter of picking proven performance over potential. Hamza’s potential is clearly evident through last season’s performances for the Cape Cobras and SA “A” but Malan has added the consistency needed to stay at the top level.
Hamza’s five fewer years, though, give selectors time to ponder whether he is the real deal while in the middle. He showed glimpses of great touches in his first Test innings and should be persisted with for the Sri Lanka series.
Malan could, and with his current first-class form should, remain the number one standby for the opening berth in the national team in the event of an injury.
Age may remain just a number but from a developmental perspective it always makes more sense to plough more effort into a talented youngster in a crucial batting position.
Malan won’t be the first and the last first-class batsman to fight a losing battle with age – but batsmen, like wine, tend to be better when older.