Pakistan in South Africa 2012-13 March 7, 2013

South Africa abandon one-day experiments

Like a scientist who has decided his analysis has run its course, Gary Kirsten declared the exploratory phase for South Africa's one-day squad over as they begin preparations for their series against Pakistan.

The five-match rubber is the last outing the team will have before they travel to England for the Champions Trophy in June. From the outside it seems South Africa have much work to do if they hope to bring back ICC silverware but Kirsten is convinced they have the base from which to build and the time for trials is over.

"The players that are in this squad are the best players in the country. That's why they're selected. We're not experimenting. We're playing the best players," he said in Bloemfontein, ahead of the first ODI. "We're looking at the best 17 or 18 players knowing that we need to be able to shift and move around a bit."

The squad has three changes from the one that lost to New Zealand in January with Quinton de Kock and Dean Elgar out and Kyle Abbott in. While that hints at settling, what underlines it is the substantial difference from the Twenty20 squad that lost to Pakistan last week.

Crucially, South Africa have senior players back in the group with Graeme Smith, Hashim Amla and Dale Steyn bringing their 320 caps with them. That proved to be the biggest difference between the teams at Centurion, where Pakistan's seasoned bowling attack outclassed South Africa.

Getting the balance between old and new, especially in an era where cricket schedules are more cluttered than said scientist's work bench, is tricky. But with no Tests to think about before October, South Africa have an opportunity to do it properly.

Their selections will be questioned as selections always are but at least they have settled on something. Some will argue they should have included Richard Levi, Stephen Cook or Henry Davids, the top-three leading run-scorers in this season's one-day competition, but an opening partnership of Smith and Amla is more formidable.

Likewise, Andrew Birch, Roelof van der Merwe and Hardus Viljoen - the domestic tournament's leading wicket-takers - have had to miss out to an attack that will include Steyn, Morne Morkel, Lonwabo Tsotsobe, Ryan McLaren, Robin Peterson and Aaron Phangiso. Morkel remains an injury concern having not recovered fully from the left hamstring strain that kept him out of the third Test. Kirsten envisages that he will play "at some point" but, in keeping with the way he has been managed in previous one-day games, he may be rotated.

Where question marks remain is around the middle-order but a quick scan of the statistics hint that the selectors could not have done that much better. Vaughn van Jaarsveld scored 28 more runs than Farhaan Behardien in the Momentum Cup but no-one put up their hand up high enough.

"It's nice to have a focus on ODI cricket so we can upgrade our skills and make sure we spend as much time as we can knowing what we need to do to close games out in tight moments"
Gary Kirsten

What the likes of Berhardien, David Miller and Colin Ingram need to do is harden up - particularly mentally - before players such as Quinton de Kock, Temba Bavuma and Yaseen Vallie and Cody Chetty start challenging for their places. That could be as early as next season. For now, the incumbents have to do the job and Kirsten has accepted that, knowing they failed in that regard two months ago.

Against New Zealand, South Africa's middle order was its usual wobbly marshmallow, incapable of toasting no matter how much it was held over the fire. It melted in the face of pressure, where aspects such as the death bowling also struggled. "All our preparation and our debriefing has been on the New Zealand series," Kirsten said, confining the retrospection to the shelf. "We've spoken about what went wrong there and what we could have done better. We try not cross pollinate too much. That keeps us all sane. We're spending a huge amount of focus over the next three days on making sure we get our game in order. Then we know we can put opposition teams under pressure.

"We've played a lot of Test cricket over the last while, so it's nice to have a focus on ODI cricket so we can upgrade our skills and make sure we spend as much time as we can knowing what we need to do in that version of the game to close games out in tight moments. We know we can create some momentum, and we know that with the players we've got we are able to win games in difficult situations."

That is exactly where South Africa have fallen short. They have not put the opposition under pressure often enough and they have not closed out squeaky-bum situations, never mind done so with conviction. They have floated somewhere between uncertain and unable, mostly mirroring their tactics.

Now Kirsten has said that should change. Stability will return to South Africa's one-day squad. AB de Villiers has been reinstalled as wicketkeeper and will have to find a way to manage that, his captaincy and his role in the batting line-up without feeling rushed, as he once claimed to. He will have plenty to lean on with Faf du Plessis having emerged as a competent leader himself.

The batting and bowling roles of individual players will not yo-yo from game to game and the focus has supposedly been defined and lies centrally in everyone's minds. South Africa only have five matches to show whether all those things have actually happened.

Although Kirsten remarked that they have 15-20 ODIs before their next Test (five against Pakistan; one against Holland; potentially five at the Champions Trophy if they go all the way; five against Sri Lanka; plus a few more against Pakistan in the UAE), it is not as simple as those numbers. There is an ICC tournament in between and a demanding public will want to see how far South Africa have reallyprogressed.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent