South Africa’s elite cricketers, fresh off an exhilarating and historic Test series triumph against Australia, are spending their ‘breaks’ keeping the rhythm going in various competitions, besides the IPL.
For the likes of AB de Villiers, Quinton de Kock, Chris Morris, Heinrich Klaasen, David Miller, Imran Tahir and Faf du Plessis its the IPL that provides continued cricket – and a hefty boost to the bank balance over the coming weeks – but others have headed for more sedate climes as they attempt to maintain form and rhythm before the Proteas next regather to prepare for a tour of Sri Lanka that starts in July.
At least four of the current Proteas squad will spend some time on the county circuit; Dale Steyn and Hashim Amla will be at Hampshire (alongside the Kolpak signings Kyle Abbott and Rilee Rossouw), Aiden Markram is at Durham, while Dean Elgar was unveiled last week as Surrey’s overseas signing for two months.
It is the pair at Hampshire who will probably provide the most intriguing viewing. Amla hasn’t been at his best this past season. Over the course of 10 Tests last summer Amla averaged 38.94, scoring two centuries, both of which came against Bangladesh. It’s a testimony to his experience and savvy, that despite the lack of output - certainly in the manner of the Amla of the 2008 to 2013 period - his role in the side was not devalued.
Du Plessis highlighted how in the second Test at Centurion against India, and in the third on that “poor” pitch at the Wanderers, Amla made significant contributions, while Ottis Gibson indicated one of the turning points of the Australia series was Amla and Elgar’s nullifying of the reverse swing threat from Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood in Port Elizabeth. Amla scored 56 off 148 balls in nearly three and half hours, at St George’s Park. It was far from sexy, but it was mighty effective, and that effect was felt not just in the second Test, but the remainder of the series too.
His reflexes - perhaps even his judgment - are not what they once were, but with concerns at the end of the fourth Test against Australia that Amla may join Morne Morkel in packing it in at international level, it is encouraging he is seeking to keep the competitive juices flowing before the Sri Lanka tour.
Steyn is similarly motivated, although unlike his good chum Amla, he’s has chosen to sign a shorter contract (two matches as opposed to Amla’s three months) with the south coast county.
Those two matches include a 50-over match and one four day game, where he ironically could come up against another close mate in Morkel, when Hampshire meet Surrey in July.
Game time is vital for Steyn, who says he remains motivated to play for South Africa and has set a goal of playing 100 Tests for the Proteas. He currently stands on 86 Tests.
All of this is with Sri Lanka in mind. Steyn made the point, that, especially now Morkel has exited the international scene, the South African attack lacks experience in sub-continent conditions. Vernon Philander isn’t quite as effective, from a wicket-taking perspective, on those slower and flatter surfaces, but does a valuable holding job.
Kagiso Rabada (currently recovering from a lower back stress fracture) has toured India just once, while neither Lungi Ngidi nor left-arm spinner Keshav Maharaj have toured Sri Lanka.
It’s a critical trip for the Proteas; from a Test perspective they will want to re-establish their travelling credentials having lost last year in England, while their last two Test series’s in the sub-continent ended in defeat in India and a rain affected draw in Bangladesh.
As far as the white ball portion of the trip is concerned (there are five One-Day Internationals and a single T20 match) it’s the last part of Gibson and the selectors player experimentation which will be under the most scrutiny.
Gibson was forthright in his assessment of the India ODI series. He said it was poor from a results perspective, but extremely helpful in giving him a close-up understanding of players with potential.
With the World Cup just over a year away, the 50-over format will increasingly grow in importance with South Africa scheduled to tour Australia in November for limited-overs matches only, while SA will host Sri Lanka and Pakistan.
It’s thus crucial, that while many deserve a mental break after the exertions in a draining series with Australia, they don’t entirely lose touch with the game either.