The Proteas’ three-match MTN ODI series against Zimbabwe provided the perfect opportunity for preparation for the more testing battles of the 2010/11 season against Pakistan, India and ultimately the ICC World Cup.
Normally a Zimbabwe series would not amount to much more than a routine exercise but the events of the past 12 months that included a poor showing in the ICC Champions’ Trophy on home soil followed by an almost unthinkable home series loss to England and an away series loss to India had revealed that all was not well with the Proteas in the ODI format.
The West Indies were subsequently well beaten as the new selection panel made significant changes such as the blooding of David Miller and using AB de Villiers as wicketkeeper in place of the long-serving Mark Boucher but sadly the Caribbean islanders do not pose the threat or the challenge that they did in their great era from the mid-1970s to the early 1990s.
The Zimbabwe series did two significant things. The first of these was to allow players who had gone off the boil to regain their form. JP Duminy was a prime example and his career-best century in the final match may well be remembered in years to come as an important turning point in the career of one of South Africa’s most gifted players. He didn’t just make runs; he took over the key backward point fielding position from De Villiers with aplomb and again showed what he can do with the ball if he is treated as a wicket-taking option in the middle overs rather than a part-timer.
Another good example was Albie Morkel who bowled better and quicker than he has done for quite a long time and was rewarded with his 50th ODI wicket in the final match. He took full advantage of the opportunity to bowl with the new ball.
The second was to provide confirmation for the selectors and tacticians that they are right on course with some of the selections they have made. Keeping wicket did not affect De Villiers’ game at all, whether the Proteas batted first or second. He made outstanding centuries both in chasing a target at Senwes Park and in setting one at Sahara Willowmoore Park and was named MTN man of the series for his outstanding average and strike rate.
Equally important was the continued development of Graeme Smith and Hashim Amla as an outstanding and consistent opening partnership. Amla also made two centuries and had a strike rate of more than 100 percent and it would probably have been fairer for the man of the series award to have been shared.
The Proteas now have an absolutely rock solid top four in Smith, Amla, Jacques Kallis and De Villiers that is more than the equal of any other combination in the world.
Then there was the continued policy of bringing youth into the squad. This is not just important in terms of the runs and wickets these players have contributed but also in terms of fresh and fast legs in the field which is going to be a vital aspect of the World Cup campaign.
Miller built on the excellent start he had made in the Caribbean with the best strike rate in the side and an impressive average to boot.
Colin Ingram became the first Protea and the sixth player of all time to make a century on debut, doing so from the important No. 3 position. And, when he was required to slog in the final match, he responded with a strike rate of 250!
Rusty Theron was the most successful of all. To claim 11 wickets at an average of 11 with an economy rate a fraction over 5 in his debut series was phenomenal. Initially he was only chosen for the Pro20 series but the injuries to Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel opened a new door for him and he kicked it down with all his normal enthusiasm and desire.
There is a touch of Eddie Barlow in him in that he always wants to be in the game, even when he is standing on the boundary, and he has that knack of doing something special whenever the captain asks him. He went from novice to ‘go to’ man during the course of the series and that revealed his true value.
The selectors will have to be brave indeed to overlook him for ODI duty again!
There was a sub plot to the emergence of Theron and the others as a consequence of the injuries to Steyn, Morkel and Kallis. It meant that the Proteas’ depth, particularly in the bowling department, was going to be severely tested.
Wayne Parnell, as a 21-year-old, for instance had to lead the attack in the second Pro20 match in Kimberley. This was only his second game of consequence since being ruled out through injury during the Indian Premier League back in March.
The ODI series was an important one for him as it was evident he needed to regain the bowling fitness necessary to get through 10 overs per match as it was for Lonwabo Tsotsobe to build on the form he showed in the West Indies and he responded with the best economy rate of all the seamers.
Now the focus switches to the Pakistan series in the United Arab Emirates. This will show the selectors and the team management just how well the newcomers can perform under World Cup conditions.
What has been really encouraging recently is the fact that playing on the sub-continent no longer holds the fears for South African cricketers that it once did. Part of this can be put down to the experiences gained through the Indian Premier League. India has become a second home for the team’s senior professionals and those who play both at the World Cup and in the IPL will find themselves spending 5 of the first 6 months of next year in India!
But there is an equally important second reason. There is a new spirit among the emerging talent, many of whom have played under-19 World Cups on the sub-continent, and it was best displayed when the South Africa A side won both their limited overs triangular series in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka during the winter.
The Pakistan series could define the Proteas’ footprint for the World Cup.