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Sunday, Dec 08, 2019

Proteas’ mountain to climb

In less than 18 months, South Africa will go into another ICC event — the World T20 in Australia, a tournament where they have reached the semi-finals on two occasions.

cricket Updated: Sep 12, 2019 09:09 IST
Abhishek Paul
Abhishek Paul
New Delhi
South African players during a practice session at the Himachal Pradesh Cricket Association cricket stadium in Dharamshala.
South African players during a practice session at the Himachal Pradesh Cricket Association cricket stadium in Dharamshala.(PTI)

South Africa’s then head coach, Ottis Gibson, launched a grand ‘Vision 2019’, a master plan to break the Proteas’ choking streak at the World Cup.

August 2019. Gibson and his entire coaching team got the boot by Cricket South Africa (CSA). Only three wins in nine matches in England had left the ‘vision’ somewhat blurred.

Gibson’s blueprint for succeeding involved experimentation and rotation, all leading up to the big prize. It never came. Retirements, tightly packed bilateral ODI series leading to fatigue and an injury-list that kept getting longer right into the World Cup meant that the Proteas finished seventh—only above Bangladesh, West Indies and Afghanistan. “We only had 18 months, probably less than 18 months to build a team, so time was always against us,” Gibson would go on to say after the exit.

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In less than 18 months, South Africa will go into another ICC event — the World T20 in Australia, a tournament where they have reached the semi-finals on two occasions. Shaking away the disappointment of the bygone World Cup campaign and rebuilding in time for the World T20 is their big challenge. The journey won’t be easy but it offers redemption too.

The first step on the long road to the World T20 will be taken on Sunday in Dharamsala, where the three-match T20 series against India begins. This is South Africa’s first assignment post the World Cup meltdown and, understandably, the squad bears a fresh look.

The last time South Africa toured this part of the world for a T20 series in 2015-16, they prevailed 2-0. Only fast bowler Kagiso Rabada remains from that squad for the upcoming series. According to SA’s interim team-director Enoch Nkwe, South Africa have already begun wiping the slate, starting with Quinton de Kock replacing the experienced Faf du Plessis as captain in T20Is.

“It’s also an opportunity to start building for the future. We know where Faf stands, as a captain and as a player. He’s done great things for South African cricket. We also need to look at what the future looks like. We believe in Quinton, who’s going to be leading the team in this series,” Nkwe, the coach-cum-manager, said during his first press meet in Dharamsala.

“The T20 series gives us the last chance to have a look at our leadership and batting options as the next edition of the T20 World Cup is now little more than a year away, which is why we have gone with an inexperienced leadership group,” Corrie van Zyl, CSA’s acting director of cricket, had said before the team’s departure.

READ | India vs South Africa: 3 Indian players who will be under spotlight in upcoming series

For de Kock, who came into the limelight with three successive ODI tons against India at home in 2013, his promotion to the captain’s post is a gradual progression of a player who was primed to be major force in the South African line-up. At the World Cup, he was one of the three South African batsmen, along with du Plessis and Rassie van der Dussen, to tally more than 300 runs and yet it was his failure to convert his starts into big scores that ended up hurting South Africa.

“Coming into this series, we’ve got a lot of new players. Win or lose, I just want the guys to keep competing, keep fighting. As long as they keep doing that, I’m sure we’ll be in good hands,” said de Kock. “We’ve got quite a young team, so there will be a lot of energy. I’m looking forward to that.” Of course he is, given he struck two centuries and 318 runs the last time South Africa played an ODI series in India, back in 2015-16.

Not everyone who failed in England and Wales has been ignored. The South Africans have included eight players from the World Cup squad in the 14-man T20 unit for the India tour. Seven of those eight are returning from a period away from cricket, while only Beuran Hendricks featured in an A-series. Aiden Markram and Lungi Ngidi, both of whom starred in the Test series when India toured South Africa in 2018, will feature in the long-format leg of this tour, starting in Visakhapatnam early next month.

The squad features four T20 debutants in batsman Temba Bavuma, left-arm spinner Bjorn Fortuin, allrounder George Linde and fast bowler Anrich Nortje. All four were part of the South Africa A side that played in the recently-concluded one-day series against India A. Three other members from that A side are in the T20 side.

And it is not only the T20s that will see players earning international caps. The Test squad has a possible debutant in Nortje, wicketkeeper Rudi Second and spinning allrounder Senuran Muthusamy. “We’re looking to invest in a good foundation going into the T20 World Cup next year in Australia. But we still have a lot of games. We have about 20 games. So we’ll reassess the situation after these three games against India and see where we’re at. For now, the focus is this upcoming series,” Nkwe said.