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March 8, 2013
Barring a few minor tweaks, the squad Gary Kirsten has for the current series against Pakistan is the one that will represent South Africa in the Champions Trophy in June. As a result, almost everyone in that unit knows they are not playing for their place but to enhance their skills and accumulate match practice. Almost.
Ryan McLaren is one of those who is not.
As the current first-choice allrounder, McLaren is likely to compete with Jacques Kallis for a spot in a major tournament XI and it does not take a rocket scientist to know who will win that battle. It puts McLaren in a tricky position because, although it may not be as harsh as him clinging on by his fingernails, it could get there.
Kallis does not play bilateral one-day series anymore as part of his management programme. Kirsten said after 18 years of service that is a more than acceptable concession. But Kallis wants an ICC medal as much as the next South African cricketer, so management remain "in negotiation" with him for the Champions Trophy and the World Cup.
Whether he will be at either of those events will depend on his fitness after the IPL and his own willingness. If he makes himself available and his body agrees, Kallis will definitely be part of the squad. McLaren will not be discarded completely but he may be an understudy. He remains the ODI all-rounder and all indications are that he will be given a fair run.
Like Robin Peterson did when he was offered an extended rope, McLaren will have to do something with that to keep ahead of the likes of Chris Morris, who is emerging as another option at bay. Currently, one of the only things to choose between them is experience and McLaren's is more valuable in time than numbers.
His international record reads like that of a bit-part all-rounder. Ideally, he would like his batting and bowling statistics swapped around. In 16 matches over the last four years, McLaren averages 10.66 with willow and 32.52 with leather. His most memorable performance was probably only one moment long - the one in which he hit James Franklin for six off the last ball to win the third ODI against New Zealand in January in a series that South Africa had already lost.
Domestically, McLaren has enjoyed far greater success. In 132 List A matches, he has scored eight half-centuries and averages 32.57. He has taken 157 wickets at 27.56 and is known for his dependability above everything.
Noble a quality as that is, it is also forgettable because it is overshadowed by exciting talents who produce dramatic performances. McLaren knows that he has to come with a few of those in this series. "We know that when we go to the Champions Trophy, we will try and take the strongest squad available so there are a few guys in this team that want to try and cement a place in the side and put their hand up to make sure they go along," he said, distancing himself from the obviousness of who those players are.
Batting at No.7 and bowling behind the likes of Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel, Lonwabo Tsotsobe and Kyle Abbott may not give McLaren much opportunity but there will be a role for him to play. South Africa's middle order is notoriously soft and often leaves it to the end for something to happen. A quickfire 15 or 20 runs are not immediately classed as valuable but when they prove the difference between two sides, they are exactly that.
To that end, McLaren has been preparing for ways to break free with the bat, especially against the Pakistan attack. "Their strength is in their spinners and our preparation has been specifically focused on how we are going to play their spinners," he said.
In the bowling department, South Africa have lacked at the death but also appear to freeze when confronted with a batsman who has had the confidence to take control. Martin Guptill in the festive Twenty20 against New Zealand and Kane Williamson in the ODI series which followed are classic examples, as is Mohammad Hafeez's 86 in the Centurion T20.
For much of Hafeez's innings it looked as though the better he got, the more South Africa's bowlers allowed themselves to shrink away. No-one could come up with the breakthrough and it took a bizarre of hit wicket to end his knock. Guptill and Williamson were both unbeaten because South Africa could not apply sufficient pressure.
McLaren said there has been much introspection from the attack in the aftermath. "There has been reflection. As bowlers, we got together and had a chat about what we learnt and what we felt we could improve on. It's an on-going process, every game is about building for the Champions Trophy." And for McLaren, it will be about ensuring he is part of the group that travels there.
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