Incomprehensibly, the Proteas are fretting over Zim
Professional caution and meticulous execution were South Africa’s modi operandi during last week’s one-off Test match against Zimbabwe and much of the same can be expected in the three-match one-day international series between the teams in Bulawayo starting on Sunday.
“We have almost stumbled here in Zimbabwe before and we wouldn’t like to see that happen this time,” one-day skipper AB de Villiers said this week. “The triangular series with Australia, which follows these three matches, is a very important one for us and it’s important to have confidence going into that.”
It is also important to win emphatically when the opportunity presents itself but Zimbabwe have a history of making life as difficult as possible for the opposition – and raising their game to meet the standards of their opponents. Like many other teams, their standards also tend to be dragged down by inferior teams.
De Villiers sees the inclusion of four new faces in the squad as reason enough to “play it straight and try to be clinical”. Resting Dale Steyn, Morné Morkel and Vernon Philander for the week may be a welcome bonus for the home side, but it clearly leaves the captain feeling nervous as well as excited.
“It is exciting to have new faces, it really is. We’re all looking forward to finding the perfect 15-man squad for the World Cup, because it’s certainly not settled yet. These three games will give us a clue as to who else there is waiting to grab a place.
“There are a couple of wild-card spots, so it’s a chance for someone to come out of the pack and put their hand up for selection,” De Villiers said.
Zimbabwe Test captain Brendan Taylor said he is “relieved” to be handing over the ODI captaincy to Elton Chigumbura after two years in charge of all three formats, but there is another relief he doesn’t mind admitting: “Now that Dale and Morné are gone and out of the way, that should give us some confidence.
“I don’t want to take anything away from the guys who are coming in to replace them, because anyone selected to play for South Africa is a quality cricketer, but we won’t miss those two for three games until the triangular [series] starts,” Taylor said.
Room for errors
De Villiers spoke about the importance of the games to the Proteas. “I want to win every game we play, but there will be room for errors and I’m not expecting us to play perfect cricket because we’ll try one or two different combinations in the three games and some of them may not work,” he said.
“Playing well and winning is important, but so is preparing for the World Cup. We’ve still got over 20 games before it starts and for me, it’s about getting as much information as possible.
“The last thing I want to happen is being at the World Cup and, when something unexpected happens, thinking: ‘Shucks, what now? We’re not ready.’
“Kagiso Rabada is in for Beuran Hendricks, who has a stress fracture. It’s a chance for Kagiso to learn some of the do’s and don’ts of international cricket, so we would like to see him in an ODI to see what he is about. But I know all the guys coming into the squad so there is no fear of the unknown or anything like that,” De Villiers said.
“Marchant de Lange and Kyle Abbott have international experience while Rilee Rossouw and Mthokozisi Shezi had a great ‘A’ tour in Australia, so they are in form.”
Planning for the World Cup is foremost in De Villiers’s mind, but for the Zimbabweans the prospect of playing seven matches against the Proteas and Australia is even more daunting than the game’s showpiece in six months’ time. “Like the Test match, we’re nervous and excited at the same time. It’s a great opportunity for us as individuals and also for Zim cricket. We have nothing to lose, except the matches,” Taylor said with a wry smile.
“Bulawayo is also not a fast-paced pitch and will suit our style of bowling,” Taylor said. “We’re also more comfortable with the ODI format; we’re more familiar with it. We only play one Test match a year at the moment, but we do get a few more ODIs,” he added.
Proteas coach Russell Domingo was also careful to stress the reality of a potential upset, no matter what the expectations of Proteas supporters are.
“We came here a couple of years ago for an unofficial T20 series with Bangladesh and they whipped our socks, they won the tournament, so we’re under no illusions. We expect them to compete and be ready to pounce on any mistakes we make,” Domingo said.
He is right, of course. An upset can occur at any time, against any opposition. The question to be asked, perhaps, is why the team are so concerned about that possibility.
They know how good they are, and the irrelevance of a possible set-back against a team of underfunded enthusiasts.
A more confident team might concentrate on perfecting their match-winning traits rather than compromising them for a win-at-all-costs approach.
Time will be the judge.