South Africa should be in the throes of preparation for the World Cup, but are instead awkwardly obliging their commitment to a two-match Test series against Sri Lanka, writes Jonhenry Wilson.
Yes, they will face the same opposition in five ODIs and three T20Is next month, but February’s shortfalls in the longest format are really hampering limited-overs aspirations.
The questions answered and the momentum gained during January’s three-two ODI series victory over Pakistan have diminished in the wake of February’s misadventures at Kingsmead and St George’s Park.
A brief Test series against an opposition four positions lower down the International Cricket Council rankings should have been trivial for a Proteas squad close to a World Cup campaign. Instead, they’re the disgruntled recipients of a scoreline deficit after a one-wicket defeat in Durban – and are now battling to avoid the series defeat in Port Elizabeth.
Granted, only four of the current Test XI players will almost definitely be named in the squad for the World Cup, while that number could be extended to seven if batsmen Aiden Markram, Hashim Amla and all-rounder Wiaan Mulder are banked. But the concern extends beyond the playing personnel and the coaching staff.
Now is not the time for captain Faf du Plessis, head coach Ottis Gibson and company to be absorbed by decisions and tactics directed not at winning, but instead aiming for a draw in the home series against the sub-continent’s second-weakest team.
The focus should currently be on the composition of the ODI middle order – and the all-important number seven position for the World Cup, not why Test match opener Dean Elgar isn’t spending prolonged periods at the crease – or how not to lose 20 wickets to Sri Lanka.
To reference the old adage, ‘this too shall pass’, and the Proteas will be on the right or wrong end of the second Test’s result later this – or early next – week. The incentive to win at St George’s Park is only spurred by the prospect of a series draw. A loss, of course, would bring a series whitewash. Either way, victory or defeat will not genuinely benefit – and only detract from – South Africa’s preparation for the World Cup in the United Kingdom.
Come 28 June’s penultimate round-robin fixture against Sri Lanka at the Riverside Ground in Chester-le-Street, however, the damage done in Test cricket less than four months before might negatively affect the Proteas’ ODI showpiece aspirations.