Cape Town – Linking the two ventures is both unjustified and
mischievous. But were there, nevertheless, certain preparatory lessons to be
learned for the England Test tour from South Africa’s unexpected suffering in
the unofficial Twenty20 triangular tournament in Zimbabwe?
As much as the surprising levels of competitiveness from
both the host nation and Bangladesh clearly caught the experimental Proteas
outfit by surprise, the exercise seemed to underscore the dangers attached to
being thrust into an event straight out of the local off-season.
South Africa’s Test team, of course, are a settled and
infinitely more street-wise bunch, who probably know exactly what they have to
do in order to be able to hit the ground running for a critical series such as
the looming three-Test one in England, featuring the two top-ranked sides on
Let’s hope so, anyway.
There has been some predictable public derision in the wake
of revelations that the Test squad will spend a few days in Switzerland shortly,
with adventurer and motivational guru Mike Horn, ahead of the big UK mission.
I have no problem at all with that aspect of their
preparation – team-building is an essential dynamic and a diet of nets, still
more nets and some “middle” activity alone does not necessarily guarantee a
smooth-firing cricket team.
More of a concern, I believe, is whether the Proteas will be
able – primarily for weather reasons in the ever-fickle English summer – to
cash in fully on their two county warm-up games ahead of the first Test at The
Oval from July 19.
The squad has some 13 days to acclimatise to England before
that fixture, including a two-dayer against Somerset and a three-day affair
It may well be very important that some of their front-line
batsmen are able to knuckle down for decent vigils, and that bowlers are in a
position to get through some long spells to open the lungs again, as it were.
Coach Gary Kirsten, interestingly, is not a huge believer in
warm-up cricket, and frankly it is tough to instantly quibble with someone who
sports some 14 000 personal international runs to his name.
He was quoted on Cricinfo as saying: “I’m not sure if
warm-up games are beneficial. I actually preferred no warm-up games and to go
straight into Test matches.
“I believed I had only a certain number of innings that I
was going to make runs in and I didn’t want to waste (them) in a warm-up game.
But some guys are different ... they enjoy those games.”
Many of the South African players will not have had any
first-class cricket since the New Zealand tour at the end of the domestic
summer, so may be particularly anxious that weather does not disrupt their
quests to fine-tune against Somerset and Kent XIs.
Lack of prior game-time cannot always be held solely
accountable for a team’s struggle, of course, but there may be some
significance to the fact that in the first Test of the previous English tour in
2008, the Proteas were so nearly caught “cold” after coming out of their home
Lord’s was the first-Test venue on that occasion (it stages
the third and final one this time), and South Africa’s bowlers suffered the
indignity of seeing England bat first and post almost 600 runs.
The Proteas were then rather skittled out for 247 and made
to follow-on; they belatedly hit their straps as second-knock centuries from all
of Graeme Smith, Neil McKenzie and Hashim Amla eventually secured a very
comfortable draw – the wake-up call seemed to inspire the tourists as they went
on to a drought-breaking 2-1 triumph in the four-game series.
The Test itinerary is sadly shorter this time, so the
importance of being “intense” almost immediately cannot be undervalued.
There have been other occasions in fairly recent history where
Proteas teams have appeared undercooked as far as overseas conditions are
concerned and nearly paid a price in a first-Test scenario.
One that comes to mind was the first Test of the 2005 West
Indies tour, in Guyana, where the underdog host side amassed 543 for five
declared and then bundled out the Proteas for a humiliating 188 – again South
Africa showed greater durability the second time around to bat out 161 overs
and save the game.
What are the chances of them starting the latest series firmly
on the front foot, rather than the other way around?
Perhaps one positive from the Zimbabwean bungle by a rather
different SA staff will have been to remind the Test troops that cobwebs simply
can’t be carried.
Here’s hoping the invigorating Alpine environment next week
plays its own little part in removing them ...
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing