McLaren, Parnell in for Australia Tests; Tahir dropped
Allrounders Wayne Parnell and Ryan McLaren were both recalled to South Africa's Test squad ahead of the upcoming series against Australia. The pair will be in direct competition to fill the allrounders' spot in the XI, left empty by Jacques Kallis' recent retirement.
For the first time in 18 years South Africa have compiled a squad without Kallis and coach Russell Domingo admitted it will require a slight rethink of South Africa's strategies. "The mental shift is going to be just as important as the statistical shift," Domingo said. "We're not looking for another Jacques Kallis, we're looking for someone to step up to the plate."
With that in mind, South Africa's selectors left their options open by naming a squad that includes the pair of allrounders, an extra batsman in Dean Elgar, a bowler with batting ability, Rory Kleinveldt, and reserve wicketkeeper Thami Tsolekile. The only choice they did not leave themselves was that of the attacking spinner. Legspinner Imran Tahir was left out of the group, with Robin Peterson the sole specialist tweaker.
"We've got guys in the squad that are replacement batsmen and replacement seamers," Andrew Hudson, South Africa's convener of selectors said. "Our formula has worked so we don't need to make any left-field selections. We felt Robbie P is our spin option for the series. It fits in with the style of cricket that we want to play. We haven't gone past Imran. As an attacking legspinner he is a huge option for us when we play in the subcontinent."
That has also meant no room for any new faces. The likes of left-arm seamer Beuran Hendricks and offspinner Simon Harmer were in the mix and the pair will bowl in the nets ahead of the first Test. Their presence in the setup is a sign they are earmarked for bigger things in future, and a plan to provide South Africa with extra practice ahead of their dates with Mitchell Johnson and Nathan Lyon.
Meticulous preparation is a must for South Africa because they have had no first-class cricket since the Boxing Day Test against India and five injury concerns in the lead-up to this series. All the walking wounded are expected to be fully fit with AB de Villiers, Graeme Smith, Dale Steyn, Faf du Plessis and Vernon Philander on the mend from hand, ankle, rib, shoulder and lower-back niggles respectively.
They will have an opportunity to test their fitness in what Domingo called a "shadow Test side" against a Rest of South Africa XI - which will be made up of the next best players in the three franchises who do not qualify for the domestic 20-over playoffs. That will also be the game in which a final decision is made over the exact make up of South Africa's XI.
Domingo all but confirmed du Plessis will move up to bat in Kallis' No. 4 spot, so the change will be made lower down. "Faf is the guy we are earmarking to bat at No. 4," Domingo said. "He got a big hundred batting there against India to save a Test and he has scored runs for the Titans batting there."
Parnell seems the likeliest option to slot into the XI, because of the extra pace he offers. "He has done really well for the Warriors. He has improved his consistency and the big plus is that he is a guy who can bowl 140," Domingo said. "He is also more than capable with the bat. He is still young and there are going to be inconsistencies in his performance but he can become a major player for SA in all formats."
But Domingo indicated South Africa may tinker with the balance of the side. "It's not going to be a set strategy like we had in the past. Something got to give. Either we will have four seamers, no spinner or only six batters," he said, although he indicated an all-pace attack is not his preferred choice and he would not like to burden JP Duminy with the spinning role. "I like going into matches with a spin bowler. If we are expecting JP to pick up five wickets that's going to be a big ask for him. He is still a long way away from being a frontline spinner in Test cricket."
Another player whose workload has come under scrutiny is de Villiers and with his hand still healing from surgery, there was talk he may not keep wickets in this series. Public opinion has called for Quinton de Kock's inclusion but Domingo explained that could only happen against a lesser opposition.
"Quinny is a massively talented player but a series against Australia is such a tough environment to come into for your first Test series," Domingo said. "We play lower profile Test series later in the year and maybe then we can look to blood someone like Quinton. He has got a lot of development to do as a person and a cricketer and I don't want to do him a disservice by rushing him in."
The Australia Test series will be South Africa's last until at least July, when they are scheduled to play Zimbabwe, and has been spoken of as the highlight of 2014. Later in the year, South Africa host West Indies in what is a barren Test year for the No. 1 ranked team. That's why they are hoping to be at their best for this contest and are putting every effort into making sure they are well prepared.
Unusually, they have 10 days worth of lead-up time, starting on Monday. "That will be a big plus for us," Domingo said. "When we went to Dubai there was no cricket but now everybody has been playing. We will be doing analysis in a less rushed environment, which will also be good. Australia will always be a formidable outfit and we want to focus hard on our strategies."
The first Test gets underway on February 12 in Centurion.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent