South Africa's brave new world of experimentation
'Cautious over curious' has usually been the approach of the South African selectors. Instead of being dynamic and open-minded they have traditionally acted in a risk averse manner, until now.
With the possibility of a series win over Sri Lanka looming tantalisingly, South Africa have made two major changes to the make-up of their squad. One is forced: Hashim Amla is awaiting the birth of his first child and has asked for paternal leave. The other had been made by choice: Jacques Kallis has been rested. If South Africa also opt to leave Dale Steyn out of the starting XI to give the Test sensation Vernon Philander a run, they will be playing without three of their biggest match-winners.
It's a telling sign that the changes have come early in the AB de Villiers era. In just two matches de Villiers has shown a penchant for creativity and what he likes to call "flair". In the first game, big-hitting Albie Morkel was brought up the order. In the second, JP Duminy was promoted to No. 4 and was also the first spinner to be used on the night, even though Robin Peterson was waiting in the wings. Winning has made his task easier but de Villiers has slipped into his three-pronged role of captain, wicket-keeper and top-order batsman, with enviable ease.
"So far, juggling the responsibilities hasn't been that bad," he said. "I feel very comfortable in the role. Gary [Kirsten] has taken a lot of the pressure off me and helps me with the decisions off the field so that I can go out and enjoy myself."
Fun and de Villiers go together like Bloemfontein and heat but unlike the host city of the third ODI, de Villiers can choose when to go from easy-going to serious. He wants to lead with an element of entertainment but he has not forgotten the magnitude of the task in front of him. South Africa will clinch the series if they win on Tuesday and that is far more important to de Villiers than showing off his expressive captaincy and penchant for experimentation. "It's important for us to win this series. That comes first," he said. "It's also one of those series though where we want to try some combinations. Luckily, it's not unknown boys that have come in."
Alviro Petersen, Colin Ingram and Vernon Philander have come into the squad and the first two are almost certain to play in the top three. The possibility of Philander making an appearance is not guaranteed, because of South Africa's embarrassment of riches with the ball.
Lonwabo Tsotsobe and Morne Morkel have both excelled as the opening pair, Dale Steyn has provided the second wave of attack, Albie Morkel has had limited but fairly competent opportunity, Peterson and Duminy have carried the slow-bowling responsibilities, while Johan Botha has not even played. "We have a lot of options in the bowling and it's nice for me to play around with. Hopefully I will use them wisely." de Villiers said.
South Africa's bowlers can expect another tough outing on a flat, hard deck in Bloemfontein. "I am expecting it to be a high-scoring game," de Villiers said. "Hopefully there's a bit more bounce. When we've bowled a few overs, we'll try and adapt as quickly as possible."
De Villiers said that if the team bats first, they will rely heavily on management for advice on what a suitable total will be. "We'll play the first 10 overs and then come up with a total that we think is good. It's always important to communicate and get information from the field and send it back to the change room to then discuss what a good total to get, is."
Sri Lanka will also look to the surface to provide some assistance for their batsmen, who improved massively after being bowled out for 43 in the first match. They put on 236 in the second game, but found themselves short on runs as South Africa reached the target with eight balls to spare. Their captain, Tillakaratne Dilshan, is due a contribution having not scored a run in the series so far and de Villiers said South Africa know how dangerous he can be. "If he gets it right on the day, he's going to score a few runs so hopefully we get it right and dismiss him early on."
The visitors can't feel too good about themselves knowing that is against them that South Africa gave chosen to enter the brave, new world of experimentation and may even fancy their chances. It probably won't make them feel any better but de Villiers has braced for a backlash as well. "They are world-class players and we're expecting them to fire pretty soon."
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent