Kirsten unconcerned by defeats
There is a reason why South Africa did not arrive in Johannesburg with disappointment painted on their faces after their defeats in the Zimbabwean tri-series. Cynics will say it is because they are not used to performing well in multi-team tournaments and getting as far as the final was good enough. However, the real explanation is something far more straightforward because, according to the the coach Gary Kirsten, South Africa's main priority was not to win.
It sounded like a half-baked excuse for losing by 29 runs, three wickets and nine wickets to Zimbabwe and Bangladesh in a tournament that most expected South Africa to dominate. However, it was clear as Kirsten and the squad arrived back home that they would not linger long on the results over the last few days.
"It wasn't a failure, it was a very important tour," he said. "The purpose was to try out different combinations under match intensity. The results were disappointing but that wasn't our main goal. If our goal was to win a tournament in Zimbabwe we may have picked out strongest team."
Experimentation was the buzzword of the week for South Africa. They tried two different opening batting combinations, three new-ball bowling pairs and four middle-order match-ups, meaning that even when the same players featured in more than one match, the line-up was never a carbon copy of itself. "It helped us in terms of understanding what combinations we want use. The purpose was to find out," Kirsten said.
He admitted that the series may also have "confused" them in certain respects, rather than clarify who the best players for the job are. It is still a tight tussle between Richard Levi and Faf du Plessis to decide who will open with Hashim Amla, after both showed promise in that department. The middle-order also remains unpredictable. Colin Ingram had one start and one innings of substance at No.3, Justin Ontong put in a good showing at No.4 once, Farhaan Behardien struggled against spin in the conditions and Albie Morkel was given some opportunity, which he took.
Kirsten was cryptic about who had made their case for selection to the final World Twenty20 squad. "Some guys enhanced their opportunity to be selected for that squad and we were able to see what types of players do well in conditions that will be similar to Sri Lanka," he said. On the evidence available and with the return of AB de Villiers, who was rested for this tournament, it would seem Ingram and Behardien are most likely to miss out.
On the bowling front, Wayne Parnell raised eyebrows when he conceded 61 runs in four overs and 33 runs in three in the first two matches. He recovered well though, as the most economical bowler of the last two matches with returns of 2 for 18 and 3 for 16 respectively and was the only bowler to trouble Zimbabwe's batsmen in the final. "He got better and better," Kirsten said.
Concern still surrounds Lonwabo Tsotsosbe, who appeared disinterested and lethargic. In the four matches he played, he took just one wicket and was hit for 133 runs. "He has been a little bit slow this tour but I'd rather it happen now than leading into the major part of the season," Kirsten said. "He knows he's got a bit of work to do. He is a proud cricketer and takes his performances very seriously."
Marchant de Lange and Chris Morris were the other two seamers on tour. With both taking their first steps in the international game, Morris more so than De Lange, Kirsten said it was important that they were exposed to the rigours of top level cricket
"As much as this was a tour in preparation for that T20 event in September, the one thing we realised is that when you are representing your country, it doesn't matter who you are against, there's pressure," he said. "It's not like an A team where you are fighting for your place. Now you're in the team and you need to perform. There's a pressure that exists nowhere else."
Although pressure was something South Africa felt in most of their matches, Kirsten maintained casualness in his assessment of the tour. He emphasised that "it will be quickly forgotten from a performance perspective because that's what it was, to experiment with what we can do in T20 cricket," and confirmed that South Africa will field a full strength side in the three T20s against England in August. That XI will closely resemble their World T20 line-up.
Kirsten also saved some special words of praise for Zimbabwe though, to whom the tournament was anything but a practice outing. "Those guys are firing. They've got some explosive match winning players and good variety in their bowling attack," Kirsten said. "Our reason for this tour was slightly different to theirs. They played a fearless type of cricket because of the settled nature of their team. I suppose we went with an unsettled team because we wanted to test combinations."
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent