South Africa v New Zealand, Champions Trophy, Group B, Centurion September 23, 2009

South Africa aim to put campaign back on track

It's that season again, when dust, pollen and other flowery bits float through the air and settle in that corner of your nose, where you can't get them out, no matter how many times you sneeze. In fact, there's only one thing that can wash away the layers of swirling, sandy mist and that's a noisy and wet Johannesburg thunderstorm. Thankfully, the first summer rains descended on the Highveld last night, washing away the winter's last grime. Mickey Arthur may be hoping those showers also rinsed the rustiness off the South African team.

If the coach is thinking along the lines of most of his critics, that South Africa are disadvantaged because they are the only team to have not played international cricket since June, he's being careful not to say so. Despite a 55-run defeat to Sri Lanka, Arthur said he was pleased with most elements of the team's performance and felt they had adequate preparation, although he did allude to a lack of competitive cricket. "No matter how much preparation you have," Arthur said "it's not going to prepare you for a match situation and what you face in the middle."

Arthur didn't pin the loss to anything in particular and simply laid the blame on a "bad day at the office." He had no extra special or intense training to put his men through ahead of their "do-or-die" clash with New Zealand. In fact Graeme Smith, Jacques Kallis, Mark Boucher and AB de Villiers were not required to attend practice in Centurion since Arthur was "happy with their skills." Roelof van der Merwe and Johan Botha were also excused which means only the seam bowlers and select batsman were put through their paces.

The team's media officer, Michael Owen Smith, confirmed Hashim Amla will open the batting again because Herschelle Gibbs was still out with a cracked rib. There were no signs of a change in the bowling attack, despite the bowlers conceding 319 runs on Tuesday. Wayne Parnell came under the strongest microscope, despite taking three wickets, for conceding 79 runs in his 10 overs, and calls to replace him with Makhaya Ntini have abounded. But Graeme Smith defended Parnell saying he is "still young and it is inevitable that he is going to have ups and downs at international level."

Perhaps it's not their own bowling South Africa need to worry about, but their opponents'. Shane Bond is still on the comeback trail and according to Davey Jacobs, captain of the Warriors franchise that defeated New Zealand in a warm-up match last Friday, he is their "most dangerous weapon and capable of being a match-winner."

Jacobs led the Warriors to a two-wicket win over New Zealand but found the visiting team to be no pushovers. He said their bowling would be their biggest strength, "If Bond and Kyle Mills operate well together, they could be real trouble for the batsmen." Daniel Vettori had similar views about their bowling, saying the return of Bond and Daryl Tuffey had brought back some "competition in the seam bowling department."

It's the New Zealand batting that can be fragile, and it perhaps explains why the South African bowlers were made to have extra practice. Even though Jacobs identified batsman such as Brendon McCullum, Ross Taylor and Jesse Ryder as a potential threat to the South African bowlers, he believed their batting was the one area where they could be exposed. "A lot of their batsman got in and made good starts but couldn't convert and we knocked their tail over quite easily," said Jacobs.

Vettori had similar worries. When the team touched down in South Africa, some of his first observations from the tri-series defeat in Sri Lanka were about the batting. "Our individual records are good, if you look at guys like Taylor and Elliot, but our problem is that we need to be able to put partnerships together." Despite that, Vettori thinks the Centurion pitch may favour his men, finding it similar to the pitches they played on in Sri Lanka and more docile than usual.

Vettori is not fooling himself into thinking it will be an easy task, though, and knows that his team could be on the receiving end of a South African backlash as the hosts try to erase memories of the first-match embarrassment. Arthur even hoped it will signal a turn around of the chokers tag, and his team will now get their bad match first up and not later on, when it really matters. But as Jacobs put it, "New Zealand are dangerous because if you look at them on paper, they're not supposed to win. But they may just surprise you."

Firdose Moonda is a freelance writer based in Johannesburg