Proteas need to settle ahead of the Champions Trophy

2013-03-07 00:00

CAPE TOWN — South Africa, needing to firm up their plans fairly swiftly for the ICC Champions Trophy in mid-year, cannot afford to experiment too much more as they embark on the five-match one-day international series against Pakistan this weekend.

The first ODI will be played in Bloemfontein on Sunday, starting at 10 am, and a “settling” phase seems the right medicine now, as there are no further series after this one in which to fine-tune the national team for the English-hosted tournament.

If the Proteas’ Twenty20 brew seems in a fairly alarming state of uncertainty and instability, a greater sense of continuity is arguably required at 50-overs level over the next two or three weeks if they are to be capable of mounting a cohesive, serious challenge in the closing edition of the Champions Trophy.

So it is difficult to imagine the team’s brains not trying to assemble something as close as possible to a desired “first team” during the contests against the Pakistanis, who will have their tails up after thrashing their hosts in the lone T20 contest at SuperSport Park.

South Africa have a 15-player squad for this particular series, but it may already be too late to fiddle too greatly with combinations.

That said, a delicate balance may have to be struck because they are sure to be tempted, for instance, to gauge at some point how Test debut bowling sensation Kyle Abbott might fare in maiden ODI activity.

They will also be mindful of the fact that the resting, veteran all-rounder Jacques Kallis and (if fit by then) middle-order batsman and useful “offie” JP Duminy are almost certain to be included for the trip to the UK in early June.

While those two are absent against Pakistan, the respective likes of Colin Ingram (for Kallis) and perhaps either of Farhaan Behardien and David Miller a little lower in the batting order for Duminy may have a final opportunity against Pakistan to nail down onward places in the squad.

SA are under pressure to earn a morale-boosting victory in this series, not just because they were upset 2-1 by New Zealand in their last home ODIs, but also to preserve a proud bilateral record against Pakistan.

South Africa have never yet been beaten in a one-on-one series against these particular foes, even if the situation is different in a variety of multi-team tournaments, particularly in the earliest years of the Proteas’ return from isolation when those sort of events were more prolific.

They have beaten Pakistan 4-1 (2002/03) and 3-1 (2006/07) previously on our soil, and 3-2 (2003/04) and 3-2 again in 2007/08.

In the last series — played in the neutral United Arab Emirates because of Pakistan’s perceived domestic instability the Proteas also won 3-2 in 2010/11.

It is a shame in many ways that no place could be found in the current Proteas squad for 20-year-old Lions phenomenon Quinton de Kock, who shared an influential opening partnership of 83 in only 15.3 overs with century-maker Graeme Smith in the last ODI against the Black Caps at Potchefstroom — the hosts sneaked home by one wicket to stave off a whitewash.

The fresh-faced left-hander probably paid a price for “getting in” on all three occasions then, but failing to push on personally to a big score.

Considering that bowlers like Ryan McLaren and Lonwabo Tsotsobe did well in that last ODI, they probably warrant retention for game one against the Pakistanis.

Whether Morné Morkel has recovered sufficiently from injury to be deemed battle-ready for the Bloemfontein clash will be gauged when the squad assembles there shortly, but if not the side for Sunday should not differ greatly from the following: Graeme Smith, Hashim Amla, Colin Ingram, AB de Villiers (captain), Faf du Plessis, Farhaan Behardien/David Miller, Ryan McLaren, Robin Peterson, Rory Kleinveldt, Dale Steyn, Lonwabo Tsotsobe.

The batting certainly has a lot less of a “green” appearance to it than the ill-fated T20 line-up last Sunday did, and if there is one obvious shortcoming it would be that a sixth bowler of genuine repute does not spring to mind (especially in the absence of Kallis and Duminy) although both Du Plessis and Behardien can turn their arms over sporadically if necessary.

A winning start would help enormously if it is, indeed, hoped that personnel may not have to be shuffled too significantly during the remainder of the series.

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