When South Africa's A squad embarks on tours of Zimbabwe and Australia, the transfer of knowledge between players will be as important as catching the national selectors' eyes. The group is a made up of players with international experience and those on the fringes of higher honours, and captain Stephen Cook hopes they will spur each other on.
"It's a great squad, we've got a lovely balance," Cook said at the team's training camp in Pretoria. "These guys are all fantastic players in their own right, and I am sure we will all learn from one another."
An experienced leader in franchise cricket, Cook takes charge of the A side with an ambition to cement his own place in the Test team. He made his debut in the fourth Test against England in Centurion, South Africa's last Test in the 2015-16 summer, and scored a century. Cook was one of the few bright spots in an otherwise bleak period for the side, and he will be one of the players they will rely on as they seek to re-start their climb up the rankings.
Despite having been around for a long time - Cook has been playing in the domestic set-up for 16 years - he is still looking to develop, this time under Malibongwe Maketa, a coach he has not worked with before. Maketa, the Warriors coach, has been put in charge of the A side and Cook is interested in his insights. "It's good to get fresh ideas, some fresh thinking from someone who coaches against you and analyses you in a different way to what your coach does," he said. "Everyone can learn from each other and that makes for a healthy set-up."
The word health has not been associated with South African cricket over the last year, with severe criticism of the structures at both national and domestic level, so to hear someone use it is refreshing. Cook believes there is strong competition as players hope to break into the national side. "Guys here are putting up their hands to say, 'Hey I want to make that Proteas side in whatever format is required,'" he said. "The guys are all up for it, they have all trained fantastically, our work ethic has been great."
One area where they cannot be faulted - and Cook singled it out - is conditioning, even in mid-winter. "Everyone is fit. In previous years, I have seen criticism levelled that the guys arrive unfit. This year, guys are all in tip-top shape and rearing to go which shows a good attitude," he said. "That's the most important thing. If you can control your attitude, that takes care of a lot of the performance."
A central figure in the fit-again stakes is Vernon Philander, who missed most of the previous season after tearing ankle ligaments during warm-ups ahead of AB de Villiers' 100th Test against India in Bangalore. Philander made a comeback towards the end of the season and is now aiming to reclaim his place in the Test side to face New Zealand in August. He is also hoping to inspire the younger generation.
"As much as it's for me to get back, it's also to share my knowledge with these guys out here," Philander said. "As long as I can help the younger ones coming through as well, I think I've played my part in South African cricket."
Someone like Sisanda Magala, a fast-bowling allrounder from the Eastern Cape, could benefit from having Philander around. Magala was the second highest wicket-taker for Warriors in the first-class competition and 13th overall with 27 wickets at 27.00, and is making his debut for the A side. "I am very excited. It's my first time going overseas and my first time playing for South Africa A, so there's definitely lots of emotions going around," Magala said. "I will try and be like a sponge and absorb as much as I can, learn from them, because they have been at this level for a long time."
Another hopeful is Cobras' four-day captain, Omphile Ramela, who has emerged as a promising top-order batsman. At 28, Ramela, who finished ninth on the first-class run charts with 592 runs at 42.28, seems to be entering his prime, and sees the A tour as taking him a little closer to the South African side. "It's a stepping stone. I am trying to get closer to playing for the Proteas," Ramela said. "These tours are important. It's important that we keep learning as players. I am still learning as a player, but I will be trying to help where I can."
South Africa play two four-day matches in Zimbabwe, two in Australia, and then a quadrangular 50-over tournament in Australia, in which Wayne Parnell will take over from Cook as captain.