Cape Town – Ryan McLaren finds himself in an unusual,
elevated position for South Africa’s three-match ODI series against Zimbabwe in
Bulawayo from Sunday ... most senior seam bowler.
It is perhaps not the worst time for the lower-order
all-rounder to be entrusted with that mantle, as he is 31, holder of 43 caps in
the 50-overs international format and a generally well-travelled and streetwise
cricketer by now.
But he is rather more used to serving the Proteas in
circumstances where the likes of Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel are ahead of him
in the bowling pecking order for seniority and reputation.
Neither of those two shock bowlers, however, will see action
in this short series, being rested instead for the triangular immediately
afterwards that will also involve the key presence of Australia, top of the
current ODI rankings and joint-holders of the World Cup early next year.
Similarly Vernon Philander, admittedly not yet a hard-and-fast
member of the ODI mix but an increasingly experienced Test competitor, has also
come home from Zimbabwe for a bit of feet-up following the once-off Test match
which the Proteas won by nine wickets.
What it does is leave an intriguingly lopsided look to the
SA squad: all the major batting guns will be at their berths, but the pace
department will be largely stocked by peripheral players.
Given that the World Cup is now only around six months away,
that situation amounts to a useful “lab test”: McLaren is arguably the only
seamer from the current SA resources in Bulawayo virtually guaranteed to be
among the squad for the major spectacle Down Under unless he suffers an
inexplicable form wobble during this summer.
So Kyle Abbott, Marchant de Lange, Wayne Parnell and squad
debutant Mthokozisi Shezi must seize the opportunity, if or whenever it comes
their way, to impress the South African brains trust over the next few days
against frankly humble opposition.
It is tempting to venture that the Zimbabweans will be more
competitive in the ODIs than they were the Test match – where they certainly
had their moments – if you use the principle that the shorter the format, the likelier
the chance that the minnow team might be bothersome.
But the hosts are actually ranked lower in ODIs, at 10th,
than they are in the five-day format, where they do at least have Bangladesh
Bear in mind also that Zimbabwe’s last ODI series outcome
was a disappointing 2-2 at home recently against Afghanistan, so anything but a
South African 3-0 sweep would represent a surprise.
That makes it doubly important for the Proteas’ “stand-in”
fast bowlers to produce the goods; just one wayward outing could see an
individual among them put back on the sidelines and struggling to get on the
World Cup bus, if that is the right word.
The return of the express-paced, but hitherto frustratingly injury-prone
De Lange is perhaps of special interest: he enters this series off an
encouraging six-wicket match haul in the SA ‘A’ victory over their Aussie
counterparts in the first unofficial Test in Townsville a few days ago.
It is strange to think that the 23-year-old from Tzaneen has
played only one prior ODI for the Proteas – and that was a man-of-the-match
performance of four for 46 against New Zealand at Auckland back in 2012.
De Lange is sometimes prone to poor economy in limited-overs
matches, a tendency that also surfaces occasionally in the enigmatic Parnell,
although for possibilities in bodily harm he is right up there with just about
anyone on a good day.
Abbott, meanwhile, who is the patient next cab on the rank
for rights to a regular Test spot, has been campaigning with mixed success for
Hampshire in county cricket this season, and has played two matches for South
Africa in each of the three formats – he ought to be hungry to greatly lift
that dribs-and-drabs tally in at least one arena.
If these various fringe players approach the Zimbabwe series
shrouded in a curious blend of expectation and uncertainty, at least McLaren,
new senior statesman of the Proteas’ pace battery, knows he has recent rosy
form behind him.
The Knights stalwart was South Africa’s leading wicket-taker
in the commendable 2-1 ODI triumph in Sri Lanka earlier in the domestic winter,
with nine scalps over the three contests at an average of 13.11 and economy
rate of below five runs to the over (4.91).
Both Steyn and Morkel, incidentally, conceded at a rate of
above six, which is no train smash but did add a wee bit of favourable gloss to
McLaren’s own competence.
Over the next week or so, he could be said to take on a
“Shaun Pollock” sort of leadership status at ODI level: he will be expected to
be parsimonious with ball in hand and a spirited striker with the blade
somewhere around No 8 in the order ...
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