Post-CWC: Proteas must retain some veterans
Cape Town - It is going to be a confirmed, significant adjustment already, what with JP Duminy and Imran Tahir pulling the 50-overs plug on South Africa after CWC 2019 with a combined tally of what should be well over 300 caps by then.
But here’s the big question many observers and enthusiasts in this country are understandably quite reluctant to ask: might others join them?
That pair have been vital, long-serving parts of the one-day international furniture for the Proteas, and fall in line with the relatively common phenomenon, every four years, of luminary players using the World Cup as a farewell platform.
Although both have indicated that they intend campaigning onward in Twenty20 international cricket (giving them the prospect of another World T20 on Australian soil next year), the national team will take a while to acclimatise to their absences simultaneously from the 50-overs landscape once the dust has settled on UK-staged CWC 2019 in mid-year.
Versatile factor Duminy, who turns 35 later this week, has played 194 ODIs since his debut back in 2004, and the 40-year-old but unrelentingly effervescent Tahir, for so long the frontline attacking spinner, stands on 98 caps and should tick over to three figures soon after the World Cup starts.
Both also, at different times, stepped back from Test activity, but three other notably decorated, multi-format SA stars are also closing in on their top-flight sunsets: captain Faf du Plessis, senior batsman Hashim Amla and pace maestro Dale Steyn.
So far, there has been no clear-cut indication from any of the heavyweight trio of their ongoing aspirations - if any at all - for the Proteas, post-World Cup.
Speaking of the looming, major tournament, it is not even a fait accompli, of course, that Amla makes the cut when the 15-strong SA party is announced on April 18.
The now 36-year-old’s statistical decline has become increasingly pronounced across the formats and levels of competition over the last couple of years, really, and more recently he has also had the significant mental distraction of serious illness to his father.
Since that unfortunate domestic situation supposedly eased a little, Amla hasn’t yet leapt from the blocks after a short break from the game: he has not come off in two Twenty20 outings for the Cape Cobras (16 and 2) and only passed the 50-mark once in his last 11 innings for either franchise or the Proteas.
But his vast experience and especially impressive track record on English soil still make him a dubious exclusion indeed from the World Cup squad, if that were to occur.
At best, however, he may now be considered an “extra” in the party (a few years ago it would have been unthinkable not to brand him a first-teamer, either in ODI or Test terms) and a modest World Cup might have the effect of persuading both the player himself and selectors that he should exit international cricket in all its forms.
Nevertheless, a Proteas team returning to action in the Test arena minus Amla in unforgiving India towards the end of the year - their first series in the ICC’s all-new Test Championship - is an instinctively worrisome thought, considering the increasing sense of fallibility and lack of steely depth in the batting department collectively.
It is a country where, at least in his imperious heyday, Amla was capable of truly massive series runs: remember those successive innings of 253 not out, 114 and 123 not out in a two-Test roster there in 2010?
Bear in mind that once the World Cup is out of the way, Tests become the chief priority again for South Africa, given the demands of the Indian challenge and then a glamour home summer series against England, who have won each of the last two between the countries.
Since a golden Test season in 2017/18, when they still had AB de Villiers in the ranks and beat both India and Australia on our shores, the Proteas have surrendered two of their last three series: both home and away to modest Sri Lanka.
But that shaky record only serves as a reminder that both Steyn and Du Plessis, especially, remain vital, backbone elements - assuming they’re still available - in next season’s quest for a turnaround in five-day fortunes.
While they share the unavoidable Amla characteristic of having to increasingly fight off the ravages of time on the body and mind, Steyn (35) and Du Plessis (34) have not yet too noticeably fallen prey to consistent decline from their most hallowed levels of performance.
The Phalaborwa Express has shown enormous courage to allay sceptics’ fears that his career was over a couple of years ago after further surgery to a serious right-shoulder injury; recently he has even been bowling with some of the true venom and hostility of his youth to accompany his legendary guile and skills.
But just how much gas might be left in the tank of the indisputable fast bowling great after his third and almost certainly final crack at a World Cup soon?
He has already succeeded in becoming the all-time leading wicket-taker (439) for South Africa in Tests, and if South Africa were to achieve the nirvana of actually winning the limited-overs tournament that has been such a ghastly hoodoo for them previously, I suspect he might regard it as a really fitting time to retire.
That said, Tests have always been Steyn’s truest forte: India and England as next-up foes must be enormously tempting to him - especially the latter on home surfaces and perhaps the most apt juncture of all for him to contemplate a few weeks of emotional goodbyes to our major centres?
A more outside chance, of course, is that Steyn has thoughts of defiantly, pluckily stretching his Proteas career even beyond that if he feels the shoulder (which he treats quite cautiously when it comes to throw-in needs in the field, remember) is still up to it.
Du Plessis? The youngest of the trio under focus here, his evident, ongoing popularity - and comfort, assuredness in the role - as leader of the troops in both Tests and ODIs is just one key reason for wishing him to stay a very central part of SA’s plans beyond the middle of the year.
He was one of desperately few redeeming batting elements for the Proteas in the juddering 0-2, first-time home Test loss to the Sri Lankans a few weeks ago, while he also remains among the most treasured handful of stroke-players in white-ball cricket for them and officially still ranked among the top five individuals on the planet.
In transitional periods, often with their accompanying hazards, cricketers like Du Plessis are particularly worth their weight in gold.
Whatever transpires at the back end of CWC 2019, I believe I will not be alone in imploring Cricket South Africa to stave off a situation where the Proteas, hot on the heels of Messrs Duminy and Tahir’s significant downscaling of international activity, are stripped in one tumultuous swoop of the other three eminent individuals.
A step-by-step, more gradual retirement process would help curb the (highly likely) dangerous degree of aftershock to the Proteas ...
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