Cape Town - At least two things were curious about the media release from Cricket South Africa issued earlier on Thursday.
First, of course, it is not every day - though it is also not unprecedented - that you learn a player has been withdrawn from an international touring squad because he has “failed to meet the team’s fitness standards”. There was (pointedly?) no associated mention of the frequently relevant phenomenon of injury.
But that is what has occurred, 10 days short of the opening Twenty20 fixture against India in Dharamsala, the sacrifice in question being versatile Warriors stalwart Jon-Jon Smuts on the eve (Friday) of departure for the Subcontinent.
Smuts has eight prior caps for the Proteas in T20 internationals, although the last was more than 18 months ago.
For a known, hard-hitting player at domestic level who had underwhelmed at the top of the batting order in his first year or so of activity at the highest tier (126 runs at 15.75 and a top score of 45), this would have represented an ideal opportunity to re-establish himself with an eye on the next ICC T20 World Cup in Australia in just over a year’s time.
While the almost 31-year-old, who celebrates his birthday later this month, is hardly the quickest hare you’ll ever spot on the heath, his sudden snubbing still comes as something of a surprise.
The national team’s brains trust are nevertheless quite entitled, as a general principle, to act the way they did, especially as there is rightful pressure on the Proteas to raise their dynamism in the field after looking less agile and hungry at fairly recent, glaringly off-colour CWC 2019 in England/Wales than has been the norm from them at previous 50-overs World Cups.
But the fact that the national selectors, headed by acting convenor Corrie van Zyl - also acting director of cricket - have not opted for a like-for-like replacement is almost as intriguing as the Smuts axing itself.
Yes, you could submit that both Smuts and the debutant who has grabbed his spot, the Cape Cobras’ George Linde, are “all-rounders” so, on the face of it, there is little difference – especially as their bowling trades are both left-arm spin.
But key elements do separate them, given that Smuts is primarily a front-of-the-order batsman who bowls a bit and the lanky Linde - currently in India as part of the SA ‘A’ squad, so saving CSA a long-haul plane ticket - rather more the other way around; his main area of responsibility is more customarily his tweaking fare.
The 27-year-old is useful in his own right with the blade, though he is considered much more of a “finisher” than a specialist-inclined factor at the crease.
That is evidenced from the fact that he has been batting largely at No 7 for SA ‘A’ and that is the sort of terrain where he also did duty in last season’s CSA T20 Challenge for the Cobras at the back end of the summer.
In short, then, he is a contrasting animal to Smuts – the omitted player has 5,452 first-class runs, for example, including nine centuries - as a batting operator.
The 14-strong Proteas squad for the trio of T20 internationals in India now looks even more lopsided than before in favour of bowlers, whether spin or seam, even if several have attacking middle- to lower-order credentials with the willow.
As many as nine, arguably, fall into the category of bowling being their primary suit: Junior Dala, Bjorn Fortuin, Beuran Hendricks, Anrich Nortje, Andile Phehlukwayo, Dwaine Pretorius, Kagiso Rabada, Tabraiz Shamsi and now Linde.
There are only five out-and-out batsmen in the party: wicketkeeper Quinton de Kock, who also has the extra care of captaincy, Temba Bavuma, Rassie van der Dussen, Reeza Hendricks and David Miller.
Just to retain some semblance of reasonable balance, it seems all of those five will have to play every match; an interesting conundrum would occur if, say, one of the front-liners went down injured on the eve of a contest, as you would be looking at a seriously fluffy South African tail.
When former West Indies paceman Ottis Gibson was still South Africa’s head coach until recently, there used to be murmurs that he was a little too bowling-obsessed when it came to both squad and team compositions at times.
Has anything changed?
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