There are just a few weeks to go before South Africa starts defending its world number-one ranking. The tension is mounting already, and while Australia has shifted some of its first-class matches to aid players’ preparation, some of South Africa’s players have opted for time out. By ANT SIMS.
In just four days, the South African Test squad will assemble for the start of its title defence, where it will fight to remain number one in the world. Barring those players who are still involved in the Champions League, the current kings of the Test arena will head down under to prove their mettle against Australia.
Yet while their contemporaries have been ordered to play Shield Cricket (Australia’s four-day competition), a portion of the South African contingent is opting for time out of the Champions League.
The preparations – or lack thereof – from the Proteas are, of course, not dissimilar to those ahead of the England series earlier this year. While the team does have a heavy schedule ahead in the summer (and the notion of guarding players against injury is a valid concern) the lack of match practice, despite plenty of available opportunities, is a worry.
Since the Proteas’ return from England, Test skipper Graeme Smith hasn’t hit a ball, and Vernon Philander has bowled in just two matches. Imran Tahir last played first-class cricket at the end of September; JP Duminy, Hashim Amla and Dale Steyn last played cricket in Sri Lanka in the World T20.
It’s not that there has been a lack of opportunities – the four-day competition in South Africa is in full swing. And while some matches have been affected by rain, the general lack of cricket played by some South African stalwarts should raise eyebrows.
Cricket Australia, meanwhile, has moved two Sheffield Shield fixtures forward in order to allow extra time for their players to prepare for the upcoming series. Michael Hussey, Peter Siddle, James Pattinson, Ricky Ponting and Ben Hilfenhaus will all get extra time out in the middle.
Unlike during the tour of England, there is just one warm-up match ahead of the first Test at The Gabba in Brisbane on 9 November, and the South African squad will have very little time to acclimatise. There’s no time for a cruise around the Alps or a dive down the Great Barrier Reef with explorer Mike Horn this time around. The Proteas’ excursion to Switzerland ahead of their England tour – and the rest they got – was given credit for their later exploits, when they reached the top of the Test rankings.
But while the trip undoubtedly helped them focus, there is no practice like match practice.
Team management has said the decision to keep some players away from the action is based on a number of factors. Those players who are part of the set-up in all three formats, for instance, need a break, and team management says that time away from the game can be as good for them as time out in the middle.
On paper, it’s a fair assessment. The players all work hard and everybody needs a holiday every once in a while – especially those who are out in a cricket field day in, day out. Workload can be detrimental to a player, as has been the case with AB de Villiers, who had suffered a recurring back and ankle injury after he was forced to keep during the England series due to a career-ending injury to Mark Boucher.
De Villiers – who also keeps in the one-day and T20 format – soldiered through pain at the ICC World T20 and, as a result, has not played any part in the Titan’s Champions League T20 campaign – he is being rushed to recover ahead of the series in Australia. If he recovers, De Villiers will be keeping wicket in Australia ahead of Thami Tsolekile, who has been included in the Test squad as backup keeper.
The last time the Proteas toured Australia, they won the series in dramatic fashion. As rivalries go, this tour will dish up some more enticing encounters – whether South Africa have adequately prepared or not will only become evident once they step out at The Gabba on 9 November.
South Africa has opted for a largely unchanged squad for its three-Test tour of Australia. Rory Kleinveildt has been included in the side at the expense of Lonwabo Tsotsobe, while Albie Morkel was also left out.
"It is tough luck for Lopsy (Tsotsobe) to miss out, but we just feel that Rory's ability to hit the deck hard will give us a valuable option, particularly at Brisbane and Perth," convenor of selectors, Andrew Hudson, said when the squad was announced.
"He also adds batting depth to the lower order. The fact that he finished second on last season's four-day bowling averages behind only Vernon Philander speaks for itself, and he continued his form for the South Africa A side at home to Sri Lanka and away in Ireland."
Kleinveldt has been in impressive form for the Cobras in the four-day domestic competition, and is currently the second-highest wicket-taker in the competition, having bagged 15 wickets in three matches. He’s unlikely to play, of course, unless an injury crops up and presents an opportunity. If it does, though, Kleinveldt will surely be full of confidence on the back of a couple of stellar outings on the domestic circuit.
Squad: Graeme Smith (capt), Hashim Amla, AB de Villiers, JP Duminy, Faf du Plessis, Imran Tahir, Jacques Kallis, Rory Kleinveldt, Morne Morkel, Alviro Petersen, Robbie Peterson, Vernon Philander, Jacques Rudolph, Dale Steyn, Thami Tsolekile. DM
Photo: Vernon Philander (L) of South Africa celebrates with team mates after the dismissal of Phillip Hughes who was caught out by Jacques Kallis during the fourth day of the second test against Australia in Johannesburg, November 20, 2011. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko