The announcement of the South African squad for the one-day internationals against Kenya and Bangladesh has generated much talk, but it will be some time before we see if the changes will pay off.
The most celebrated of the call-ups has been that of Ryan McLaren, the Kent and Diamond Eagles all-rounder who has excelled in county cricket in the past two years. He is seen as the successor to Shaun Pollock, but perhaps we should all slow down and not get too excited just yet.
For one thing, it is not yet certain that the 25-year-old McLaren will in fact get on the field to convert his call-up to an actual international debut. McLaren is one year into a three-year contract with Kent and Cricket South Africa had yet to phone the county to negotiate his release either before announcing his selection or in the couple of days afterwards.
”We are aware of his selection by South Africa but we have not yet had any communication from Ryan or Cricket South Africa,” Kent County Cricket Club chief executive Paul Millman told the Mail & Guardian.
What McLaren has put his signature to in terms of his Kent contract is an undertaking that he will maintain his status as a Kolpak player by not playing for South Africa. There can be no doubt that the Free Stater will be in breach of that contract if he turns out in the two-match series against Kenya or the three ODIs against Bangladesh starting on October 31.
”We believe contracts are very important and we don’t sign them lightly and we don’t expect our players to sign them lightly. But life changes and if there is an issue we’d like to think that we would be approached; let’s hear from the key people,” Millman said.
McLaren took a record-breaking 54 wickets in the 2006/07 SuperSport Series, but his career has been allowed to develop largely out of the public eye. But now that he has been basically head-hunted by national coach Mickey Arthur, the terrible beast of expectancy has been awoken.
The former SA Schools hockey player will not have a bedding down period in the national team given the fanfare that has accompanied his selection. He is taking up Pollock’s position and will have to pay rent in runs and wickets from the outset. And because Kenya and Bangladesh are far from top-class opposition, a demanding public will expect McLaren to tear them apart single-handedly.
But it is important to remember that, as talented as he undoubtedly is, McLaren is still performing for the first time at international level and he will need to find another gear. It would be a major shock if he didn’t have a fifth gear, but it has happened before that players who dominate at domestic level for some reason can’t make the step up with the same consistency and success.
The other notable feature of the limited-overs squad was the axing of Makhaya Ntini and Andre Nel. The one-time Spear of the Nation and the enfant terrible have been overthrown as Arthur looks for younger fast-bowlers who can be groomed for the 2011 World Cup.
Unfortunately, the absence of Ntini and Nel — who have played 247 ODIs between them — will create a vacuum in terms of experience, which is always a telling factor in the hurly-burly of tight limited-overs contests. With both their departures coming at the same time, South Africa’s one-day attack will be led now by Dale Steyn, who has played just 18 ODIs. The rest of the front-line pacemen are Albie Morkel (26 caps), Morne Morkel (13) and Monde Zondeki (11), which should concentrate Cricket SA’s mind on trying to get Charl Langeveldt back from his Kolpak deal.
Another surprise in the squad was the appointment of spinner Johan Botha as the vice-captain. He has been little more than a foot soldier in his 32 ODI appearances thus far, but he will almost certainly captain South Africa against Kenya and Bangladesh in the likely absence of Graeme Smith as he recovers from tennis elbow.
Either way, a pair of series that may have struggled to keep the public awake will now feature some intriguing selection sub-plots.
Botha can show why he has been elevated to the ranks of the senior players and McLaren will be looking to do justice to both the faith shown in him by Arthur and his own decision to relinquish a lucrative county contract.
And the pressure will be on Steyn, the Morkels and Zondeki — not forgetting the able assistance of Jacques Kallis — to show that Ntini and Nel are not going to be missed.