Cape Town - Inadvertent though it largely may be, South
Africa will tackle the ICC Champions Trophy in the United Kingdom next month
with a more futuristic team than initially intended.
Confirmation that Graeme Smith’s troublesome ankle requires
surgery, ruling the street-wise opening batsman out of the tournament and for a
few months beyond it, simultaneously serves as the dawning of a new era for the
country’s one-day international side.
Weighed down for some 15 years by a well-documented,
crippling failure to grab trophies at major global gatherings in the 50-overs
format, the Proteas find themselves heading for England in June now minus
several players who have been core figures in the bulk of those ill-fated
ventures - even if the country has often produced stirring performances en
route to agonising late exit and been indebted to such stalwarts for personal
bouts of undisputed excellence.
Suddenly, though, the South Africans will square up to the
demands of the Champions Trophy (ironically in its expected swansong, even if
its strength-versus-strength, compact format gives it considerable appeal)
notably unburdened by ghosts of big events past.
They will go in a wee bit vulnerable in pure experience
terms - something inevitable following the unexpected withdrawal from
consideration of the 321-cap, five-World Cup Jacques Kallis and then the mishap to his long-time colleague and
Capetonian buddy “Biff” Smith (193 caps, three World Cups).
When you throw in the marginalisation of record-hogging
wicketkeeper Mark Boucher from the format in October 2011, you quickly realise
just how much the squad carrying the nation’s hopes to the latest jamboree in
the UK will be trying hard to open a new chapter.
The country’s still-learning ODI captain AB de Villiers will
no longer have leadership predecessor Smith’s tactical expertise to call on,
either on the field itself or the balcony, and although there are obvious
drawbacks to that, certain advantages also seem to present themselves.
For pretty much the first time in high-pressure,
multi-national ODI combat, De Villiers will genuinely stand on his own two
feet; be in a position to put his own, unique stamp on his team.
This is a fascinating time to observe not just De Villiers
at the tiller in front of the whole, top-tier ICC “family”, but also to examine
how his charges will fare collectively - remember that South Africa are
currently ranked a relatively humdrum fourth in the world - in the bid to
propel the Proteas closer to the sort of imperious terrain they occupy as a
There is arguably less reason now to fear failure: not just
because of the absence of stalwart players so well versed in tasting it, but
because the country will knuckle down to the Champions Trophy as just another
in a wide-open sea of “possibles” in 2013 for the silverware - especially given
their rather more callow look than in previous tournaments roughly of this
These are potentially dangerous times, under the
circumstances; we should be under no illusions about that.
But just as South Africa may be blown out of the water in an
event with a format requiring near-constant urgency and focus, the chances are
just as good, perhaps, that fresh elements to their personnel give the Proteas
a measure of unpredictability that could work very handsomely in their favour.
The time has come, in many respects, for the likes of De
Villiers, Hashim Amla, JP Duminy and Dale Steyn to forcefully confirm their
status as the new sanctum of tough guys of the team, whilst Farhaan Berhardien,
Colin Ingram, Ryan McLaren, David Miller and others have the opportunity to
signal emphatically: “I belong here.”
The rebuilding of the team should not be confused with a
mass infusion of youth: on paper, the SA squad for this tournament still
contains plenty of domestic List A experience and the average age is in the
very high twenties.
As the party stood, with a replacement for Smith not yet
named, the youngest representative is Miller, who will turn 24 during the
event, and you then jump to Ingram at 27 for next most recent birth.
It is simply that the Proteas have gradually, over the last
two or three years, shed some players who have been features of the ODI
landscape for decades rather than just handfuls of years.
Short on specialist opening batsmen with trustworthy
techniques for British conditions, it will surprise me if Alviro Petersen -
Smith’s partner at the top of the Test order - is not named to fill the squad
void, even if his one-day track record for South Africa is rather less
compelling thus far than his five-day stats.
He has been piling on the runs for Somerset in the County
Championship (437 of them in four innings at an average of just under 110)
recently, so ought to feel suitably at home if summoned to the side at,
initially, Sophia Gardens in Cardiff and Edgbaston in Birmingham, where the
Proteas tackle India and Pakistan on June 6 and 10 respectively.
Their last group fixture is against West Indies, back in
Cardiff on June 14.
For South African enthusiasts, it is going to be a greatly
more educative and illuminating June than would have been anticipated just a
fortnight or so back.
The sidelining of the once-staple Messrs Kallis and Smith in
rapid succession ensures this ...
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing