Let’s all be clear about one thing – if there is any insouciance floating around about New Zealand’s whistle-stop tour of South Africa that gets under way with the first of two T20 Internationals at Kingsmead on Friday evening, it is not coming from the players of either side.
The audience may be bemused by the tour in the middle of winter and the rugby season, and some of the players might be too, but that doesn’t mean the majority of them won’t be giving it their all when they take the field for the T20s and three one-day internationals (ODIs) that follow.
The real test of commitment will come from the country’s cricket followers. It’s premature to refer to cricket fatigue when the national side hasn’t turned out on home soil for seven months, but sports fans are mostly creatures of habit and cravers of context, and this time their routine has been rudely challenged by a series that appears to mean nothing.
The dissolution of the International Cricket Council’s admittedly imperfect future tours programme means supporters can’t even pretend that this odd plug-in is part of a four-year, home-and-away structure – a “big picture”. It’s not. It’s just an odd plug-in, necessitated by the domination of the world game’s revenue by the “big three”.
The boards of India, England and Australia don’t just dominate the head table, they have their own table, which means the “small seven” nations have to snack whenever and wherever they can.
Cricket in New Zealand is stronger than ever. Instead of two or three star players and a cast of supporting journeymen, which has been the case for much of the past three decades during which they reached seven World Cup finals, before, famously, making it to the final at South Africa’s cost in March this year, they have genuine depth.
Coach Mike Hesson believes passionately that the culture of aggressive, entertaining excellence, which grabbed his countrymen’s interest like never before en route to the final at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, can be inculcated into the next generation and then sustained. In short, he believes he can, in partnership with inspirational captain Brendon McCullum, change New Zealand cricket forever.
The only McCullum here this time is Brendon’s brother, off-spinning all-rounder Nathan. Other household names are missing, too, like Ross Taylor, Tim Southee, Trent Boult and Corey Anderson, but there is plenty of talent under those Black Caps. Durban-born Colin Munro and George Worker are two to look out for with the bat, and Adam Milne is as quick as any fast bowler in the world.
South Africa’s selectors will be hoping leg-spinner Eddie Leie builds on his man-of-the-match T20 debut in Bangladesh last month, and David Wiese will be given a chance to stake a claim for the number seven all-rounders berth in the ODI side.
But the story that may capture the imagination is the return of 36-year-old Morné van Wyk to the ODI side, where he will open the batting and keep wicket while Quinton de Kock attempts to rediscover some form with the “A” side in India and AB de Villiers concentrates on captaining and marshalling the middle order.
Far from being a retrogressive step, it shows that South Africa’s selectors, under the new stewardship of 39-year-old Linda Zondi, are capable of picking the best XI to win the next game rather than continuing with a fixation on youth and rebuilding – or even just building. The message it sends to the country’s professional cricketers is priceless.
Van Wyk made a debut of different sorts during the Bangladesh tour – in the commentary box. After play on most play, having survived a torrid journey through the rush-hour traffic in Dhaka and Chittagong, he paid to go to the nearest gym, sometimes not returning to the hotel until 10pm at night. Other times he risked life and limb on a 6am run through the chaotic streets.
“I never expected a recall, but I also never gave up hope,” he said soon after hearing of his involvement in the series from coach Russell Domingo. “It means everything to play for your country. I will enjoy every moment and every ball, I won’t be putting myself under pressure. It was a lovely surprise, but I know what I can do, and it will be fantastic to be out there again wearing the badge.”
Van Wyk was first selected in 2003 but, astonishingly, has never played two series in a row. This time, understandably, he refuses to look any further ahead than his next match – although he is aware of the busy summer ahead, culminating in the T20 World Cup in India in March next year.
“Age is just a number,” he laughs. “What counts more in sport is your physical and mental fitness, whether the desire is still there. There are plenty of examples in sport of players who defy convention by keeping themselves in good condition.
“I still wake up every morning excited about my career and playing cricket. I still try to learn and improve every day.”
T20s: August 14, Kingsmead; August 16, Centurion
ODIs: August 19, Potchefstroom; August 23, Centurion; August 26, Kingsmead.
T20: Faf du Plessis (captain), Hashim Amla, AB de Villiers, Morné van Wyk, Rilee Rossouw, David Miller, David Wiese, Farhaan Behardien, Kyle Abbott, Eddie Leie, Morne Morkel, Aaron Phangiso, Kagiso Rabada.
ODI: AB de Villiers (captain), Hashim Amla, Morné van Wyk, Faf du Plessis, Rilee Rossouw, David Miller, David Wiese, Vernon Philander, Farhaan Behardien, Dale Steyn, Kagiso Rabada, Aaron Phangiso, Imran Tahir, Kyle Abbott.