Christmas in July? No, it’s cricket in April, which is still somewhat of a rarity for South Africa as the country approaches autumn.
Three years ago, a Test series against Australia finished on April 3, but we have to go back more than a decade for anything that started in this month. South Africa hosted Australia for five ODIs between April 3 and 17 in 2009. The current visit from Pakistan will be longer in match terms, with three ODIs and four T20s scheduled, but shorter in days, as all seven matches will take place in two weeks.
The full tour will take place on the Highveld, between Centurion’s SuperSport Park and Johannesburg’s Wanderers, necessitated by bubble conditions, which means we won’t get to see coastal wickets and can expect conditions to suit seam bowlers. While that could mean a feast for fast-bowling aficionados with both teams known for the pace prowess except that nearly half of South Africa’s contingent will leave after two matches.
The IPL is the other reason we don’t often see cricket in April in this country. A standing agreement between Cricket South Africa (CSA) and the BCCI has meant that South Africa keeps the April-May window reasonably empty even as the number of their players at the IPL has reduced. This season Kagiso Rabada, Lungi Ngidi, Anrich Nortje, David Miller and Quinton de Kock will leave the national squad to link up with the franchises in India which may take some of the gloss off this series.
South Africa’s new white-ball captain Temba Bavuma is unlikely to see it that way, though. He will be around for all of it and will want to use these matches to establish a style of leadership to take South Africa through the next three World Cups, after being appointed until 2023.
Ultimately, that’s what the three ODIs are about. South Africa have yet to begin collecting points on the World Cup Super League after last year’s matches against England were postponed when the visitors left early and questioned the integrity of the bio-secure environment. Pakistan are currently eighth on the table (remember only eight teams qualify for the World Cup) after playing three matches and dropped points when they lost in a Super Over to Zimbabwe late last year. That, and a series against Sri Lanka, are the only ODI cricket Pakistan have played since the 2019 World Cup and they too need to start building towards the next tournament.
Pakistan have travelled with a big, youthful squad for this trip to Southern Africa (they will also head to Zimbabwe for three T20s and two Tests later in the month) with six of their 18 ODI players under the age of 23 and three uncapped players. This is an opportunity for Pakistan to find combinations and consistency against an opposition who have not known either of those things for some time.
South Africa have not played an ODI series in a year and have been through another cycle of administrative upheaval and on-field slumps. They beat a depleted Sri Lanka at home but lost soundly in Pakistan. All while the boardroom shenanigans rumble on. This series will be played under threat from the sports minister to intervene in CSA’s affairs unless the Members’ Council – the body made up of 14 provincial presidents- and interim board agree on a Memorandum of Incorporation to usher in a new board by next week.
(last five completed matches, most recent first)
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In the spotlight
Even though he is no longer the captain, there will still be plenty of eyes on Quinton de Kock who was stripped of the leadership in all formats last month and has recently returned from a mental-health break. De Kock has played just one competitive match in almost two months since returning from South Africa’s Test series defeat to Pakistan – a fairly low-key first-class match for his domestic team, the Titans. Now, back and freed from the burden of captaincy, it is hoped he will return to being the destructively carefree cricketer who set the international alight.
Danish Aziz is expected to become Pakistan’s 229th ODI player after a successful run in the domestic fifty-over competition in January. Aziz scored 297 runs in seven matches, which included a century and two fifties at an average of 74.25, finishing as the fourth-highest scorer in the competition. In the absence of Imad Wasim and Haris Sohail, Aziz has the opportunity to make the No.5 position in the batting his own on this tour.
With World Cup Super League points up for grabs and five players leaving after the second game to the IPL, South Africa will want to field their strongest XI. That’s likely to include the full India-bound quintet. There’s a bun fight at the top of the order with four opening candidates in the squad. Coach Mark Boucher said Bavuma “will probably” bat at No.3 which means Aiden Markram may have to wait his turn after the departure of the IPL players. A middle order of Rassie van der Dussen, David Miller and Heinrich Klaasen may leave no room for Kyle Verreynne with Andile Phehlukwayo likely to slot in as the allrounder
South Africa (possible): 1 Quinton de Kock (wk) 2 Janneman Malan 3 Temba Bavuma (capt) 4 Rassie van der Dussen 5 David Miller, 6 Heinrich Klaasen, 7 Andile Phehlukwayo 8 Kagiso Rabada, 9 Anrich Nortje 10 Lungi Ngidi 11 Tabraiz Shamsi
Middle-order batsman Aziz is expected to slot into an important role behind the top four with Asif Ali and Shadab Khan to follow. Pakistan will want their seamers to make a strong statement early on but may not be able to play their first-choice attack. Although Babar Azam declared Hasan Ali “100%” fit after his recovery from Covid-19, it is expected that he will be given more time to prepare and 20-year-old fast bowler Mohammad Hasnain could be given the opportunity to add to his 10 ODI wickets.
Pakistan (possible): 1 Imam-ul-Haq, 2 Fakhar Zaman, 3 Babar Azam (capt), 4 Mohammad Rizwan (wk), 5 Danish Aziz, 6 Asif Ali, 7 Shadab Khan, 8 Faheem Ashraf, 9 Mohammad Hasnain, 10 Shaheen Shah Afridi, 11 Haris Rauf
Pitch and conditions
Late-summer pitches may be unpredictable with Bavuma expecting a little more for the bowlers and Mark Boucher thinking it may get slower as the weather cools off. That could mean matches are not as high-scoring as modern-day matches can be. The storm season has just about ended with summer and conditions in Centurion are set to be warm and sunny, with a light breeze.
Stats and trivia
- Temba Bavuma has only played six ODIs but that does not make him South Africa’s least experienced captain. Clive Rice debuted in his first match in charge on South Africa’s return to international cricket in 1991 and Kepler Wessels had only played three ODIs for Australia before turning out as South Africa’s captain in 1992. Aiden Markram was made temporary ODI captain after two matches and Graeme Smith had played 22 ODIs before being given the job.
- Pakistan were the first team from the subcontinent to beat South Africa in an ODI series at home. They won a three-match series in 2013-14 2-1, and have lost two series before and after that by close margins of 3-2.
- Fakhar Zaman needs 40 runs to reach 2,000 ODI runs.
“Unfortunately we won’t have some guys available for selection after the second ODI. It’s not ideal for preparation in a World Cup year. At least those guys are going to go and play in a good, strong competition against strong opposition. They are going to be getting first-hand information about the different venues in India and playing against players they are going to meet up against in the T20 World Cup. It would be a different story if they were going on holiday.”
Mark Boucher believes the departure of some players for the IPL has some advantages
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo’s South Africa correspondent