Cape Town – Expect South Africa’s one-day international and Twenty20 squads to sport increasingly transformed make-ups … potentially paving the way for a relatively unaltered, more merit-based character to the Test team.
If that proves the case, it is also a way in which the Proteas may deftly skirt any repeat, on their looming three-Test tour of Australia, of flashpoints like the “Justin Ontong affair” in Sydney during the 2001/02 visit to those shores.
A raw, then 21-year-old Ontong was installed for a Test debut at the eleventh hour ahead of initial selection Jacques Rudolph for the third and final Test (SA were clean-swept 3-0 in the series), at the insistence of United Cricket Board president Percy Sonn, citing the needs of transformation.
The move provoked a media storm both Down Under and back home -- and the official, immediate-effect implementation of designated racial percentage targets in the national sides, announced by Cricket South Africa at the weekend, raises the potential for certain renewed “difficulties” in team composition when the Proteas play three Tests in the very same Australia during November.
But while CSA finally confirmed their target numbers – an average minimum of 54 percent players of colour, including 18 percent black African – for the national team, the Test side may well, at least initially, have more room for flexibility and compromise.
That is because the word “cumulative” appears a far from insignificant ingredient in the complex, thorny process.
Not only will the targets be measured on a seasonal rather than outright match-for-match basis, but they will be cumulative across the three formats (Tests, ODIs, Twenty20 internationals).
So those hallmarks of the process do add some justification to CSA president Chris Nenzani’s statement that “our selectors and team management will have the flexibility to deal with varying circumstances”.
It may just be that CSA have shrewdly found a middle ground to appease, as far as possible, the lobby demanding more vigorous transformation and those who, contrastingly, lament the official implementation for the first time – and some 25 years after unity – of hard-and-fast quotas at national level.
My understanding of the “cumulative” part is that comfortably exceeding required percentages in either or both of the limited-overs SA teams/squads (and recent history suggests this is extremely feasible without too many feathers being ruffled) will make it possible for the Proteas team in the most traditional, five-day arena to operate in a manner relatively undisturbed from current circumstances.
Remember that only a few days ago, in a crushing, series-deciding Test victory over New Zealand at Centurion, South Africa played much more like the No 1-ranked side they still were less than a year back … and also fulfilled the now-prescribed “target” percentage requirement on all counts.
They have also not been averse in recent times to fielding a limited-overs side containing as many as eight players of colour – that was the tally when they beat Australia in June, during a Caribbean ODI triangular series, even though they were eventually the side bumped out of making the final.
Before the weekend, I would have ventured that the November (Tests only) trip to Australia has the potential to cause first serious ructions – and potentially by extension, acidly examine squad harmony – over target-based selections.
But it may now be possible for the Proteas to largely base their picks on more orthodox, cricket-specific considerations when they play the respective Tests against the old enemy in Perth, Hobart and Adelaide.
For the first Test at the famously speed-friendly WACA venue, for example, South Africa may wish to field an all-pace attack, endangering the place of off-spinner Dane Piedt and perhaps meaning the installation of lanky, experienced strike bowler Morne Morkel in his place.
It would affect the race-based percentage, though not profoundly so, and when the series moves on, altered pitch characteristics may see a swift restoration of Piedt to the mix anyway.
Many countries, in modern times, use limited-overs cricket as the first barometer of whether certain new players are likely to cut it at international level broadly-speaking, whilst the relative lack of context to some bilateral short-format series when World Cups are still a long way down the line means key players are occasionally “rested” to further allow for experimentation.
In the case of South Africa, such series could take on useful additional purposes, given the country’s unique, redress-the-ills-of-the-past considerations.
Like it or not, envisage a particularly strong transformation theme to the Proteas’ limited-overs squads, starting pretty instantly.
But that may also be the “swing” that helps sustain a relatively calm ride on the Test roundabout, if you get my drift …
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing