Cape Town – South Africa may have to box even more cleverly than they anticipate when it comes to keeping their troops fresh on the longest-yet tour of India.
The Proteas leave later this month for a uniquely protracted 72-day mission involving three Twenty20 internationals, five ODIs and then four Tests.
As the still globally No 1-ranked side wishing to retain that status, the Test portion is undoubtedly the most important business for them: they will also be trying to protect a proud record of not having lost a series in the five-day format abroad since a 0-2 outcome in Sri Lanka as far back as 2006.
But fears are being expressed about the duration of the trip – and not least the fact that the Tests come at the back end of the undertaking.
Former national captain Kepler Wessels, speaking on SuperSport’s Inside Edge on Tuesday, was just one critic to lament the tour effectively being the “wrong way around” in terms of the Proteas’ priorities.
He said it was going to be a considerable challenge to keep the players who turn out in all formats on the tour mentally sharp for the full duration of it.
Those affected are Hashim Amla, AB de Villiers, Faf du Plessis, JP Duminy, Imran Tahir and Kagiso Rabada, while experienced pace bowlers Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel only get respite from the earliest, shortest T20 phase.
A brief, mid-tour relaxation break in the tourist magnet of Goa has already been specifically pencilled in as part of the Proteas’ itinerary, but the fact remains that the squad will still be in India, with the unique pressures that brings – including a vast, cricket-obsessed local public, transport congestion, dietary risks and often punishing weather conditions.
It might not be the worst idea for the team’s management and/or Cricket South Africa itself to consider offering “fly homes” at different stages to key, hard-pressed senior members of the playing staff.
Someone like ace stroke-player and occasional wicketkeeper De Villiers, for instance, recently became a parent and would probably relish and benefit from any opportunity to get off the tour treadmill for a few days back in South Africa with his family.
Main strike bowler Steyn, similarly, loves to free his mind from the cares of cricket with good-for-the-soul stints of surfing or fishing on his most familiar territory.
The last thing the Proteas need is for any of their most proven players to be burnt out well before the Test series reaches its potentially pivotal later stages.
In many ways, the ODI “middle” period of the tour has the lowest gravitas right now, given that it comes a long way out from another World Cup (at least the T20 roster has greater relevance as another ICC World Twenty20 tournament looms in the very India in mid-March and coaches and co-planners worldwide will be wanting to get ducks in a row for it soon).
So that could be a suitable time for the Proteas to consider giving rotational leave-of-absence to a handful of players who would draw value from it the most.
Understandably, the Indians will wish for their guests to field strongest possible line-ups during the lucrative ODIs – especially as there is a new spirit of co-operation between the countries after an infamously fractious spell – but shuffling of resources in international squads from match to match, particularly on the fast-bowling front, has become commonplace these days anyway.
The ODIs are also reasonably widely spread out, so a week off for specific players at staggered times would not be the most outrageous or unjustifiable step to take, especially as time-zone differences between the two countries are not too extreme, thus taking jet-lag largely out of the equation.
For the whole of the 2015/16 summer, which also features a full-length tour to South Africa by England, Test cricket deserves – at long last, many might submit – to take centre stage in priority terms.
The Proteas must do everything possible to maximise the harmony, freshness and comfort of the nucleus of easily their most successful team at present ...
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