Proteas’ dramatic ‘flush-out’

2013-05-09 15:14
Proteas (AFP)

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 Test power.

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 nature.

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

Read more on:    proteas  |  champions trophy  |  graeme smith  |  cricket

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