Like a clown addressing the World Economic Forum, T20 cricket will remove its red nose and curly orange wig over the next six days and adopt its serious face as the Proteas tackle Australia in a three-match series, which means little in itself but has potentially important ramifications.
The teams will fly directly to India for the sixth edition of the T20 World Cup at the conclusion of the series but, according to captain Faf du Plessis and his players, only then will they start focusing on the International Cricket Council event. For now, starting today in Durban, they will be focusing solely on beating Australia.
If South Africa’s players really have managed to focus their attention on the Aussies, the same cannot be said of the management and coaching staff for whom the pursuit of international silverware has become just as much of an obsession as it was for all their predecessors. Talk of “combinations” and “preparation” has been as plentiful as always before these events.
South Africa’s form before this showpiece has been excellent, but it often is before the tournament begins. Two-nil series wins against India and England contrast sharply with Australia’s most recent form, which saw them whitewashed 3-0 in a high-scoring series on home soil.
The soil will be very different in India, of course, which prompted Aussie captain Steve Smith to speculate on whether the curators at Kingsmead, Wanderers and Newlands would be inclined – or asked directly – to prepare “slow pitches with not much bounce”, a move he suggested would be “in both teams’ interests”.
All three matches are heading towards sell-outs so the prospect of watching batsmen battle against spinners won’t affect the gate takings. But South Africa are down to just one spinner for the first two games – Imran Tahir – and Aaron Phangiso undergoes desperate remedial work on his action in an unlikely but well-intentioned effort by Cricket South Africa (CSA) to see his left arm conform to the 15 degrees of flex allowed in the game’s laws.
It remains a mystery how 32-year-old Phangiso’s action has never raised an eyebrow in an 11-year career, never mind be “called” for chucking. CSA bowling specialist Vincent Barnes has worked with him for half a dozen years and says he has noticed “no change”.
Conspiracy theorists are having a ball but they might be reminded that the umpires who reported him, Johan Cloete and Shaun George, are among South Africa’s best and that the testing that confirmed his fault was independent.
Meanwhile, the Australians have an astonishing collection of all-rounders, which gives them unprecedented batting and bowling depth in the history of T20 cricket. There are only four specialist batsmen in their 15-man squad with David Warner, Aaron Finch and Usman Khawaja all competing to open the batting along with Shane Watson, who has done the job at both international and Indian Premier League level with great success.
Everyone else, apart from two specialist fast bowlers and the wicketkeeper, Peter Neville, would be comfortable batting at number six. Neville is a fascinating choice along with 23-year-old leg spinner Adam Zampa and 30-year-old fast bowler Andrew Tye because they are specialist T20 products, although for very different reasons.
There is no shortage of big-hitting wicketkeepers with “OK” hands in Australia but the tourists’ selectors have moved in a different direction to the rest of the world’s. Whereas the rest will settle for an imperfect gloveman in pursuit of extra runs, Australia have gone with the best gloveman in the country – a purist. And it’s not just because they have the batting covered, it’s because they believe the format makes his role more important, not less. A half chance taken might make all the difference.
Zampa has a first-class bowling average of 50 and, as a “proper” bowler, is very much a work in progress – but he spins the ball and has variations that are hard to pick. He’s a gamble, but gambles often pay off in this game.
Tye, meanwhile, probably wouldn’t even be playing cricket if it wasn’t for T20. He didn’t play state cricket until he was 26 and then debuted for his country at 29, all because of an ability to bowl the right ball at the right time, mostly at the “death” of the innings.
Undamaged by being belted as a young man, he was fearless and – more importantly – phlegmatic about the results when he was finally playing “for real”.
South Africa have a more conventional squad of players and lack depth rather than a surfeit of it. A top three of AB de Villiers, Hashim Amla and Quinton de Kock is potent, but in which order? David Wiese and Chris Morris must both play to provide batting depth but both are vulnerable with the ball.
A straight choice between Rilee Rossouw and David Miller at number six must be made, while Dale Steyn will lead the attack, initially at least, which means a hard choice between Kagiso Rabada and perennial fall guy, Kyle Abbott, despite his excellent record. JP Duminy, so long a mainstay of the T20 side, must yet again convince of his form and appetite.
Whoever loses will say it doesn’t matter until they get to India. The winner will say it matters plenty. For the spectators and viewers, it’s another wonderful opportunity to share in the instant excitement of the most popular incarnation of the game between two of its oldest foes. The clowns are heavyweights, and they have weapons. They’ll be trying to knock each other out with smiles on their faces.