For the first time in three or four years, there is a bit of tension in the Proteas one-day squad as they prepare for a five-match series against an England side they can beat comfortably. The tourists are regarded as underdogs, and rightly so.
Like fat and salt, tension also comes in good and bad varieties; fortunately, the tension in Graeme Smith’s squad is of the healthy kind that spurs players on to greater endeavour in the team’s interests rather than the selfish kind that persuades them to do just enough to keep their place for the next game.
During their rise to the top of the international pile in the past 18 months, the starting XI has been mostly settled with an established pecking order of reserves. But all that changed dramatically in the immediate aftermath of the ignominious exit from the Champions Trophy with the realisation that predictability had undermined performance and results.
At first glance it might look as though just two or three playing positions are being examined, but a closer inspection will reveal that few men beyond Smith himself will be feeling secure about their status when they line up at the Wanderers for the first match on Friday.
Jacques Kallis faces the prospect of reinventing himself as an opening batsman, a challenge he is relishing. But at the age of 34, it is highly unlikely that the selectors and strategists will return him to the middle order should he fail. He has little choice but to make the move work. Hashim Amla has many admirers as an ODI opener.
AB de Villiers and JP Duminy are sitting pretty in the middle order and there will be less speculation about their places than most others. For the moment. But both have been promoted a place, to numbers three and four, and with that comes greater responsibility and heightened expectations. The intensity of the spotlight increases, too, and they both know that.
Alviro Pietersen looks likely to start at number five and a lesser man might easily feel that he is being set up to fail, having made his name, reputation and more than 3 000 runs as an opener. But he is a positive thinker and has responded well to the explanation that he is the ”next cab off the rank” and must make the best use of the fare he is given.
Albie Morkel is set to bat at number six again, as he did in the pillow fights against Zimbabwe. His situation may be as obvious and as pleasant as a facial tattoo, but at least he knows where he stands. It may or may not have been put to him in quite these words, but it may as well have been: ”Your bowling isn’t good enough for you to occupy an all-rounder’s place, but we still like your batting. We prefer to play six frontline batsmen — but we’ll give you a chance to prove us wrong. For now.”
Ryan McLaren, who will probably also play on Friday, is standing by to assume the position as prime allrounder should Morkel fail and the selectors revert to a specialist batsman.
But if Morkel feels that is harsh, he need only look at the position of the vice-captain, Johan Botha, who has been banned from bowling his most effective weapon — the ”doosra” — and now looks set to be overtaken as the first-choice spinner by Roelof van der Merwe. It doesn’t help that England are likely to have just a few left-handers in their top eight for him to use his off-break against.
Dale Steyn need not bother looking over his shoulder as the leader of the pace attack, but only two out of Lonwabo Tsotsobe, Wayne Parnell and Charl Langeveldt can play, so there is yet more competition for places at the bottom of the order.
”Competition for places is a good thing for the team,” Smith said after the warm-ups against Zimbabwe. ”Ideally, nobody should take their place for granted. As long as every-body can still put the team first, ahead of their personal goals and ambitions, then there’s no problem.”
Ah, yes. In an ideal world men also help women and children on to life rafts without concern for their own safety. Traffic cops don’t take bribes, drunk judges don’t crash their cars and convicted criminals eat in the underworld rather than at the table of the chief of police.
But Smith is right, for the moment. Despite the Champions Trophy debacle, there remains a winning culture within the squad and a strongly infectious desire to be a part of it.
Sorry, someone missing, you say? That would be Mark Boucher. People have been muttering and mumbling, often incoherently, about his place in the XI for most of his career. He doesn’t enjoy it much but his response is invariably to raise his game and benefit the team. So grumble away.
The Proteas’ likely XI: Graeme Smith (captain), Jacques Kallis, AB de Villiers, JP Duminy, Alviro Pietersen, Albie Morkel, Mark Boucher, Ryan McLaren, Roelof van der Merwe, Dale Steyn, Charl Langeveldt.