South Africa has just six matches left to fine-tune its game plans for the ICC Champions Trophy in June. Pakistan is a feisty one-day international team that can pack a mean punch - just the kind of punch South Africa needs to ensure the players are pumped when the next knockout challenge comes along. By ANT SIMS.
When it comes to the limited overs sides, South Africa always talk about building towards the future. Both the long-term future – things like the World Cup – and the immediate future, like the ICC Champions Trophy.
There are just six one-day internationals left for South Africa to sort themselves out before they head over to England to take part in the tournament. Five of those matches will take place against Pakistan, and with a long lay-off from Test cricket to come, coach Gary Kirsten is adamant that it’s all about taking advantage of the game time his side can muster.
“We have 20 games on the trot before we play another Test match, so we are able to have a good focus on our one-day team,” Kirsten said ahead of the squad’s first practice in Bloemfontein on Thursday.
“This is an important period for the ODI team; I think what is important for us is that we know that we can create some momentum in this team.
“We know that with the players that we have got we are able to win games in difficult situations, and that is what it ultimately boils down to. We are all looking forward to the challenge that lies ahead in the next six months or so.”
South Africa welcomes back the experience of Graeme Smith and Hashim Amla at the top of the order, while Dale Steyn will be back to lead the attack alongside Lonwabo Tstsobe. Morne Morkel is still sitting out through injury, and Kyle Abbott gets another chance in colourful clothing.
However, the question is not with the experienced players, but rather those players who have struggled to find their role(s) in the team. That will be the Proteas’ biggest challenge in the five-match series – helping those who don’t know quite where they fit in.
The two sides last played each other in 2010 for a five-match series in the United Arab Emirates, which South Africa won 3-2 – not that a scoreline of almost three years ago means much.
There are a few players who played in that series still present in the squad, though. Amla, Smith, De Villiers, Ingram, Peterson, Morkel and Tsotsobe have all been tested against the Pakistan prowess of the shorter format before, and it will be up to the experienced players to help ease the new blood into the side.
On paper, the two sides are evenly matched, and like New Zealand proved earlier in the summer, it’s all to play for when the two teams trade the fiercely contested Test arena for something a little more light-hearted.
Conditions-wise, South Africa will have the edge, especially since there is much less chance of one individual brilliant performance taking the game away from the opposition in the one-day format. It will be the key for the Proteas to ensure they use their home advantage as much as they did in the Test series, even if it’s just to get their confidence up slightly.
For the South African coach, another important element is being comfortable with resting some of the more senior players, especially considering the demands of the schedule. Kirsten insists that those who have made the cut are the best players in the country – and there is no such thing as experimenting for him.
“People often say we are experimenting,” he said. “We are not experimenting; we are playing the best players.
“You have to have a squad. You can’t just have 11; you have to be able to move with the squad. We did that with the Test squad where we had a lot of change-ups. We are looking at the best 18 players knowing that we need to be able to shift and move around.”
A win over Pakistan and a tightly contested few games might well be what such a mixed squad needs to ensure they have their heads on straight when a tournament with knockout stages comes around.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
AB de Villiers seems like he’s finally found a way to make keeping, captaining and donning the gloves work for him. While he was given some respite during the series against New Zealand, with Quinton de Kock doing the glovework, he’s now back to batting, keeping and captaining. And while that role seems to change more often than De Villiers changes his mind, all eyes will be on him to see whether he can make it work.
Umar Gul can be devastating with the ball. He might not have been unplayable in the T20 against South Africa, and he was well below par in the Test series, but conditions should be far more suitable for him in the shorter format of the game. If he can exploit some swing and extra bounce, he could play a massive part in Pakistan’s quest for some kind of redemption after being so embarrassed in the Test series. DM
Photo: Faf du Plessis (C) of South Africa is congratulated by his teammates after dismissing Brad Haddin of Australia during the second One Day International (ODI) cricket match in Port Elizabeth October 23, 2011. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko
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