Aaron Phangiso has grabbed a belated opportunity to confirm his position as a worthy second Ptoteasspinner behind Imran Tahir.
An oddball triangular series widely dismissed as irrelevant gained a sharp spike in interest when Zimbabwe threatened to embarrass South Africa in their opening game, then burst into international life when the host nation beat Australia for just the second time in 31 years at Harare Sports Club on Sunday.
As expected, South Africa will face Australia in the final on Saturday, but the big boys have been scared and embarrassed more than they may have expected. For Zimbabwe, the results have exceeded expectations.
AB de Villiers and Michael Clarke were in adamant agreement about their approach to a series against the best and worst of the one-day international world: they wanted to win games and not take chances.
Whereas De Villiers was prepared to experiment once the warm-up series in Bulawayo had been won and a place in the triangular final secured, Clarke said he wanted the “best XI on the field for every game”. After the bizarre, even random, squad shuffling of the Australian team during their four group games, Clarke was asked whether he was “on the same page” as his selectors. “You’ll have to ask them,” he said.
The consolation victory against the Proteas on Tuesday soothed the deep wounds incurred during Sunday’s historic loss to Zimbabwe, but the cracks in the Aussie infrastructure just five months away from a home World Cup remain open for all to see.
When coach Darren Lehmann, who is a selector, said in Harare that he would prefer conversations with his captain to remain “out of the media”, Clarke, who is not a selector, said on arrival back in Sydney with a hamstring tear that he would continue to be “honest and open with the media”. Clearly there is work to be done.
Despite De Villiers insisting that victory was his major priority in the eight matches they will have played during their month in the country, there has been significant progress in the formulation of the squad.
Back-to-back centuries by Faf du Plessis against Australia have cemented his position at number three, Kyle Abbott has confirmed his position as the reserve “enforcer” for Morné Morkel and Aaron Phangiso has grabbed a belated opportunity to confirm his position as a worthy second spinner behind Imran Tahir. Not that he will allow himself to believe it yet.
“I don’t think about the World Cup at all. It is still far away and there are plenty of games left before the squad is announced. We have an eight-game tour of New Zealand and Australia so anything could still happen,” he said this week.
Nonetheless, reliability and economy – and wickets – have soothed concerns about his credentials at international level. It has been a defining tour for the 30-year-old, although he isn’t yet convinced.
“I wouldn’t say a ‘defining’ tour but I have had more opportunities than ever before. We all knew that the pitches here would be dry and favour spin, so I was grateful to get the opportunity to play as much as I have,” said Phangiso.
“I’m obviously number two to Immy because he’s been successful in the team for a long time, but we also offer different things. He’s used more as an attacking bowler where I’m expected to contain more, but I love bowling together because the batsmen have to make a play and that gives us a better chance of getting on top. I’m very happy if the batsmen target me, because one of us will take a wicket. Our partnership is not a new one; we bowled together at the Lions in the past and we work well together as a team,” said the slow left-arm orthodox bowler.
The Proteas are struggling with the length of their tail at the moment, with Dale Steyn batting considerably above his fighting weight at number eight. All-rounders Wayne Parnell and Vernon Philander will most likely contest the number eight spot at the World Cup, but if two spinners are required, Phangiso has proved his worth as a batsman at a crucial time in the first game against Zimbabwe when he came to the crease at 190-8 and saw the total to a winning 231 in the company of Tahir.
“To get an opportunity like that was great, because I work so hard on my batting but never get the chance to show the results. It’s hard to make an impression when you come in to bat at 300-8 with three balls to go. If there is a next time when I’m needed, at least the guys will know I can hold a bat and they will have a bit of faith in me. I enjoyed it very much,” said Phangiso.
When the final 15 is named, there will be questions, as there have been for the past 12 years, about the racial component and requirement. It seems peculiar that in an age when the six professional franchises have just been told that their people of colour requirement has risen from four to five and must now include two black Africans, the requirement for national squads remains a mystery.
In the last three World Cup squads there have been players whose places were assumed to be owed more to politics than cricket. It was an unpleasant, unhelpful and unfair experience. Phangiso might have suffered a similar fate had it not been for this tour.