SA struggle to find value in tri-series
You would be forgiven for thinking it strange that Hashim Amla sounded like a man going to war when South Africa departed for Harare. For one, Amla rarely sounds like anything but a man coming from an ashram. Then of course, there are the facts to consider. South Africa's Twenty20 squad are going to play in an unofficial tri-series in Harare, involving two sides they have beaten soundly in the past and will likely continue to beat in various formats almost all of the time.
Nothing to get too excited about, except that only victory will justify their inclusion in this competition. "We are kind of expecting that [to win]," Amla said. "But in the T20 format, teams that are not so well known can perform really well too. But, we are expecting to perform well."
It is almost unnaturally bullish talk from the stand-in skipper ahead of what is increasingly looking like a meaningless contest. There's certainly no prize at stake - Zimbabwe Cricket could barely afford to host the event - neither is there much recognition for the team who wins, no rankings points and surely no bragging rights to take into the World T20.
The only benefit it could have is that of preparation but even that is starting to look dubious from a South African perspective. Their players will spend two months in England before the ICC tournament even crosses their minds and will have far more pressing issues at hand. The Test squad will be concerned with wresting the No.1 ranking from England, the ODI squad with not fading as dramatically as they did after the Test series victory four years ago and only then will twenty-over cricket become an issue worth pondering.
From a timing perspective, this week probably comes too early for it to be called a camp for the World T20. Johan Botha alluded to it when he said he thought it was "too far out" for him to be worried about missing out through injury, because he will play enough cricket between now and September to be ready.
When South Africa requested the fixtures, they asked for five matches in five days, a schedule that would create intensity. The inclusion of Bangladesh in the event changed it to four matches in six days, with the additional possibility of a final. While that is not drastically different to what South Arica initially wanted, their attitude seems to have changed.
Instead of using the week to fine-tune tactics and strategies with a squad that closely matches to the men who will travel to Sri Lanka, South Africa have opted to rest captain AB de Villiers and their frontline pace bowlers Morne Morkel and Dale Steyn. Given these players workloads, it made sense to leave them out, although it does mean South Africa will field teams in Zimbabwe that do not look like the XIs who will play in Sri Lanka, particularly not on the bowling front.
It's a concern that Amla hinted at when he said ultimate specialisation is not the way to go. "It does seem that that's the trend these days, to have specialised players but I guess the ideal would be to find a good balance; where the team doesn't change a lot and there's a good core of players and other guys just fit in," he said.
This series will be more of a case of the latter. Opportunity will be present for a relatively unknown bowler like Chris Morris to make an impact, for Wayne Parnell to come full circle after his comeback from injury over a year ago and for Marchant de Lange to show his last over heroics in New Zealand were no fluke.
Of greater concern though will be the batting. South Africa's 14-man squad is loaded with middle-order batsmen, none of him have nailed down a spot as their own. Colin Ingram, Justin Ontong, Farhaan Behardien and Dane Vilas will all have the chance to perform but given the experimentation that is likely to take place, none of them can count on a sustained run in Harare.
The player who may be particularly concerned about where he will fit in is Faf du Plessis. Although considered an integral part of the ODI squad, du Plessis has yet to play in T20 for South Africa but forced his way into the squad through his showings in the IPL. Du Plessis was asked to open the batting by Chennai Super Kings coach Stephen Fleming and did so with some success, scoring three half-centuries and ending the tournament as his franchise's second highest run-getter.
Du Plessis' promising form led to speculation that he may open the batting with Richard Levi, a position currently held by Amla, who has not had much to show for the eight T20s he has played. Amla left space for juggling the batting order, which should give Du Plessis at least one look in. "We know in T20 format, very seldom does a team get bowled out. So you can afford to have guys opening the batting who don't normally open the batting to get them in as quickly as possible."
Du Plessis could also challenge Amla on the captaincy front. Having been named captain of the A side, du Plessis may have to step in if Amla is left out for a game for the sake of testing combinations. Amla was a reluctant leader during last year's ODI and T20 series against Australia and was only named captain for this week when Botha was ruled out. For him, this series will also be an opportunity to have another shot at the task. "I always understood as vice-captain that sometimes AB [de Villiers] won't be around and I will have to do it."
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent