Cape Town – A lengthy diet, courtesy of the Mzansi Super League, of shortest-form cricket … it’s been less than a masterstroke in forward planning.
But a full, pre-Christmas round of 4-Day Franchise Series matches looks increasingly like very necessary manna from heaven for South Africa’s preparation for the demanding home Test series against England.
Matches from December 19-22 between the Lions and Titans (Wanderers), Cobras and Knights (Paarl) and Dolphins and Warriors (Durban) will give the cream of the national team’s white-shirted representatives a vital opportunity to re-attune themselves to the rigours of multi-day cricket in time for the first of the four clashes with Joe Root’s tourists at SuperSport Box from Boxing Day.
While there could be a dilemma over whether to have the kernel of the squad “in camp” instead over that period, a better bet seems to be most or all of them playing for their franchises, and then more hastily convening around Christmas itself for the major international obligation to quickly follow.
Frankly, there appears to be little choice … a result of the MSL (poles apart in look and feel, through its Twenty20 format) hogging so many of the lead-up weeks to the Test series.
The English tourists will play two effective warm-up matches ahead of the Tests, the first a two-dayer (traditionally a lightweight game against rookie-type opponents) at Benoni from December 17 to 18, and then a three-day clash – also at Willowmoore Park – with South Africa ‘A’ (December 20-22).
That last-named match could see the Proteas selectors sneak in a candidate or two for the Test series, especially as the SA squad looks anything but a settled unit at present.
But the franchise games shape up as the primary salvation opportunity for the nucleus of the Proteas’ Test players to get proper miles in their legs, as it were, before being pitched into series battle at Centurion.
Their bowlers, especially, will be badly in need of longer spells by then after weeks of a mandatory diet of only four overs maximum (often not even that if their sides have generous bowling options) in the MSL contests.
Unless they do get to represent their franchises in the four-day fixtures, we could see the near-bizarre situation of men like Kagiso Rabada, Vernon Philander, Lungi Ngidi, Anrich Nortje and frontline Test spinner Keshav Maharaj not having played at first-class level at all between the heavily-surrendered series in India (back in mid-October) and the first Test against England.
Trying to brush off cobwebs in the first Test of a series isn’t exactly ideal; there is always the risk of the horse bolting in game one and not being retrieved.
Another problem is that one or two SA batsmen likely to be earmarked for the Tests – current, though still inexperienced No 3 Zubayr Hamza comes quickly to mind – aren’t active in the MSL.
Hamza has been trying to fit in bits of competitive cricket with the Western Province side, one tier down from Cobras franchise level, but his last game saw him earn a three-ball duck against Border in East London on November 17.
His last significant crease occupation was his first-knock 62 in the third and last Test against India at Ranchi from October 19.
While crashing in the first of two Tests by an innings in New Zealand earlier this week was hardly ideal morale-wise, England, by contrast, should be rather more acclimatised to long-form cricket by the time they arrive in South Africa – there is still the second game against the Black Caps to follow at Hamilton from November 29 to December 3, followed by a short break back home ahead of their flight here.
The returns were pretty ugly, as the host nation amassed a massive 615 for nine in their only innings at Mount Maunganui, but English fast bowlers like Stuart Broad and Jofra Archer nevertheless got in marathon spells that should stand them in good stead for demanding Highveld conditions in the Boxing Day Test.
It seems pretty clear, then, that those franchise matches before Christmas, weather permitting – one of them being at jinxed Kingsmead hardly helps? – will be absolutely vital in getting various Proteas players at least reasonably sharpened for the most stamina- and patience-examining format of them all.
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