Can the Proteas surprise us?

2013-05-11 00:00

THE past week saw the announcement of the Proteas squad that will play in next month’s Champion’s Trophy in England. It is so long ago that South Africa won any ICC tournament that the public have low expectations of success in this short competition.

The prospects of a good showing in England have been reduced by the surprise omission from the squad of Jacques Kallis, who made himself unavailable for “personal reasons”.

This is usually code for wife trouble, but in the case of the unmarried Kallis it probably means difficulties with his girlfriend, which is not often the cause of a player’s withdrawal from an international competition.

As Kallis is currently gathering loads of the folding stuff from his IPL employers, the solution of his personal problems has clearly been put on hold until the harvest is in and he is free to return to Cape Town.

In view of the truncated nature of the Champions Trophy, it may not sit well with cricket supporters that Kallis could not see fit to make what could be one last and relatively brief effort to help his team win an overdue ICC competition.

That Kallis deserves some slack after many years of distinguished service is beyond question, but it does hurt many people to see him putting Knights before country.

It is another example of the growing malaise that the IPL is bound to have on “normal” cricket and the loosening grip that cricket authorities have on their players.

If the past can give any clues to future performance, the Proteas may surprise us this coming June. Despite the absence of key players when the Champions Trophy was originally contested as the ICC Knockout Trophy way back in 1998, the South Africans won. Allan Donald was rested from that squad in order to ensure that he was fully fit for the South African summer and subsequent World Cup in England where, with Lance Klusener, he played a leading role in the last-over farce that cost South Africa an almost certain World Cup victory.

Klusener himself was injured and was also not present in that trophy-winning team and neither, for the same reason, were Shaun Pollock and Gary Kirsten. Hansie Cronje arrived in Bangladesh with a squad that was much reduced in strength. The first three in the batting order in the final were Darryl Cullinan, Mike Rindel and Mark Boucher.

The bowling was anything but a frontline South African attack, yet it prevailed on the slow Dhaka pitches. Kallis played his best ICC innings for South Africa in the semi-final against Sri Lanka when he made 113 not out off 107 balls with five four and five sixes.

Admittedly that was a short tournament in which each match was a sudden-death affair. Still, the non-choking South Africans beat England, Sri Lanka and a decent West Indies team in the final. Although the absence of Kallis, and now Graeme Smith, is serious, it should not be a fatal blow to South African hopes. A cause for optimism would have been the inclusion in the squad of Vernon Philander, who would’ve enjoyed bowling on the fresh pitches of the early summer.

He would have had the use of his own new ball for the first overs of the innings and could have been a real handful for opposing opening batsmen.

If there is a weakness in the Protea squad, it is the apparent inability to bowl at the end of an innings. From the scant evidence of the IPL when all but the first few overs are like the death overs in a standard ODI match, we still do not have a match-winner to bowl at the end of an innings.

This may hurt our chances in the Champions Trophy. It will be very interesting to see how the two in-form IPL batsmen, AB de Villiers and David Miller, do on the different pitches and larger grounds of England.

They will both go to this tournament full of confidence, but ODIs require a more measured approach from batsmen.

It would be surprising if even such gifted batsmen as De Villiers and Miller do not show signs of IPL contamination in their batting. So much of batting is instinctive that recently learned habits can be difficult to unlearn.

With both Kallis and Graeme Smith out of the picture, much will depend on the form of Hashim Amla.

Smith’s injury is a blow. He will be missed both for his presence in the squad and as an opening batsman. His absence will place a heavy burden on Amla to stabilise the batting and keep the scoreboard moving until the stroke-makers can be safely unleashed.

One cause for optimism is the weakness of the opposition. The Aussies are in poor shape and their minds, already scrambled, will be on the Ashes. The Sri Lankans are finding the post-Murali era difficult.

Who knows what the Windies will produce with or without Gayle?

Recently, India have been disappointing in England and their players may have had too much cricket, if that’s what the IPL circus can be called.

The Kiwis looked awful out here and almost as bad when playing at home against England. Pakistan had the beating of us a few times in our summer, but look too short of quality batting.

I believe the danger will come from the home team. England’s record in ICC competitions is as bad as ours, but they do know how to play on their own pitches. They have a number of exciting young players and England will want to take a winning momentum into the Ashes, but can they win the Champion’s trophy without Kevin Pietersen?

Once again, this may be South Africa’s tournament to lose.

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