The Protea squads for the tour of Sri Lanka in July were selected on Monday. Yet, in a bizarre turn of events which proves that not all lessons learnt the hard way are remembered, Cricket South Africa has chosen not to release the names of the players who will contest two Tests and three one-day internationals on the island until June 3.
Three weeks of anxiety await a number of players who will either see an international career born or ended. It is an undesirable state of affairs but one necessitated by CSA’s desire to “follow due process”, according to a spokesperson, and the selections must be approved by the board – which only convenes on June 3.
At least two new faces are likely, and they both come from the Sunfoil Series champions, the Cape Cobras. Off-spinner Dane Piedt was the leading first-class wicket-taker and fifth in the averages this season, with 45 victims at a cost of just 19.93 each. Stiaan van Zyl was the leading run-scorer and third in the averages with 933 runs at 58.31, including three centuries and four 50s.
These were performances too consistent and compelling to ignore. As Van Zyl said just before the season ended, if you keep knocking on the door hard enough, it can’t stay closed forever.
Warriors off-spinner Simon Harmer has also been a contender and beat Piedt to a place in the South African A side, but his strike rate is considerably lower than Piedt’s, suggesting that he is a “defensive” spinner who earns wickets through long periods of attrition rather than an “attacking” spinner who earns wickets with unpredictable and unreadable variations.
Piedt sees both roles as important: “Holding up one end in the first innings and then striking in the second innings, that’s what I discussed with [coach] Paul Adams this season,” he says.
“If I do go [to Sri Lanka], then I hope my chances of making the side are quite good because I have shown that I can do both jobs: keeping it tight in the first innings and taking wickets in the second. South Africa’s history shows they strike first with the seamers, so whatever role I can play behind them will be my job.
“I know it’s a cliché, and it’s not in my hands, but if I’m given the chance then I will take it with both hands. It has been my dream to play for the Proteas since the age of four or five years old,” Piedt says.
His coach, Paul Adams, knows more than anyone in the history of the game about the weight of expectation placed on an exciting new spinner. Aged just 19, Adams was thrust into Test cricket against England in 1995 and subsequently toured India in 1997, with match-winning expected of him.
Two arms and two legs
“People have this expectation that the subcontinent is all about mystery spin – it isn’t. In the past we have put so much pressure on our spinners to take wickets and be the match winners. Statistically our seam bowlers have done really well there. Just keep the game simple; see what strategy is best for the situation. Dane [Piedt] has been great on the last day in domestic cricket this season, but let’s see,” Adams says.
Confronted with the prospect of spinning the Proteas to victory on day five of a Test match, Piedt answers calmly: “There will be pressure, but I need to treat it as a school or club game. Yes, I will know I am playing for South Africa, but the fact is: it’s still a game between people with two arms and two legs.
“I don’t know how I’ll react, but I’ll back myself to be calm and rely on the form I had for the last couple of months of the domestic season,” he says. “Paul will be messaging me every day and I made my debut with Claude Henderson, who is now the national spin bowling coach, so there will be no lack of support.”
Conventional off-spin is a dying art. Variations are essential, the “doosra” (leg-break) being the most obvious example. The “carom” ball is another. “I’ve been working on them over the last couple of seasons. We went to India two years ago and a local 16-year-old boy taught me how to bowl the carom ball. So I’ve added that to some other, subtle variations.
“But your stock ball is your money ball, and as long as your stock ball is going well, it is bound to take a wicket along the line,” Piedt says.
“I’ve known Dane from under-19 days and we have built a strong relationship over time with a view to playing at the highest level,” says Adams. “This is the first season that he has stamped his authority in four-day cricket. The key was his control. Even if we bowled first on day one, he still controlled things. He could dominate one end and let the seamers rotate at the other end. He was still learning, but he did the job.”
Adams is no less enthusiastic about Van Zyl: “Stiaan has been phenomenal this year – when he made his debut for the Cobras, people said that he would play for South Africa. The big scores he made this year have given him a great opportunity to play for the Proteas. He just needs the mental break, to know rather than just believe he is good enough. I’m sure he is.”