Like still waters, South Africa cricket's talent pool runs deeper than it may seem according to former international and long-time coach Jimmy Cook. Despite the recent results of the A side - who returned home from a tour of India without a single win - and Under-19 team - who lost home and away series to Bangladesh - Cook is optimistic about the upcoming summer and the long-term future.
"We've got enough depth; it's just about blending the youth with the experienced guys and making sure they work well together," Cook, who has coached at various levels, told ESPNcricinfo. Cook, who played three Tests and four ODIs between 1991 and 1993, is now involved with the King Edward VII School, which Neil McKenzie and Graeme Smith attended.
"I think what happened with the A side is that the selectors were looking to give guys opportunities and took a lot of guys who they thought they would look at picking in future and because of that, they had a lot of young guys in the group and not a lot of experience and that could have led to the results. But that's why they went there - to get experience."
The A side was made up mostly of second-tier players who do not hold regular spots in the national team and are challenging the incumbents. The only exceptions were Quinton de Kock, who was sent to India to regain form after being dropped from the South African team during their July series in Bangladesh, and Stiaan van Zyl, who is the new Test opener and was part of the four-day squad to get used to his role at the top of the line-up ahead of the senior side's four-Test tour of India later this year.
The rest of the 50-over and four-day outfits were players who know they are either next in line or back in line and are young enough to wait in line, which results suggest they will have to do.
The average age of both the South African four-day squad and one-day squad was 26 with the oldest being 31-year-old Lonwabo Tsotsobe, who has also played the most international cricket. Across all formats, Tsotsobe holds 89 caps and was once the top-ranked ODI bowler in the world. Wayne Parnell is next, having played 85 matches for South Africa and Quinton de Kock, is third with 75 appearances.
Dean Elgar (22) Stiaan van Zyl (5), Temba Bavuma (4), Marchant de Lange (10), Beuran Hendricks (5), Reeza Hendricks (5), Dane Piedt (1), Dane Vilas (2) and David Wiese (15) have all played some international cricket and have collectively earned 69 caps across all formats. None of that seemed to count for much as far as their performances went and the numbers do not make for good reading, although it should be remembered that the squad suffered a food poisoning incident midway through the tour, which resulted in 10 players being hospitalised.
South Africa A lost all four of their 50-over matches - two to India A and two to Australia A - and lost them badly. They only posted a total over 250 once and managed to bat out their overs only half the time. They also only bowled out their opposition only once and of the possible 40 wickets, they could have taken in the series, only claimed 16.
On an individual level, they also had very little to shout about apart from Quinton de Kock. He finished fifth overall on the batting charts with two centuries and went on to score a century in the first unofficial Test to confirm his return to the runs. Cook, who coached de Kock, believed he needed the trip to refocus. "He is a very talented lad and I have no doubt he will do well, especially as he gets older and gets a calmer head on his shoulders," Cook said.
Other than de Kock, Khaya Zondo, Reeza Hendricks and Dean Elgar all scored fifties. In the bowling department, Lonwabo Tsotsobe was the only one to feature among the top ten wicket-takers, with five scalps.
With the next 50-over World Cup still four years away, South Africa will be more interested in the performances of the four-day side, who lost their two-match series 1-0.
The team began strongly in the first game when they piled on 542, largely thanks to centuries from Omphile Ramela and de Kock, and even bowled India A out cheaply with fit-again Dane Piedt's claiming a five-for. But they did not enforce the follow-on and did not give themselves enough time to bowl India A out again. Everything fell apart in the second match, when South Africa A were bowled out for 76 in their second innings on a crumbling deck and lost by an innings and 81 runs.
Piedt took five in that match as well to push for a Test return, but South Africa may be more perturbed by the players they lost. Wayne Parnell (hamstring) and Beuran Hendricks (back) will both not be fit for the start of the home summer. Neither of them were likely to feature in Test cricket though, where South Africa now have tough choices to make.
Cook advised to keep Stiaan van Zyl at the top of the order for the eight Tests because "he has shown he can do it at that level." Van Zyl performed well in Bangladesh and scored 96 in the second unofficial Test in India and Cook expects him to be able to handle the conditions without trouble. "It shouldn't be a problem facing the new ball because it does not move much but obviously batsmen have to be fairly good players of spin, because they will face a lot of that in India."
That is where de Kock's technique has sometimes come into question, and Cook has suggested taking both de Kock and his replacement, Dane Vilas, who Cook also coached, to India. "Dane is very mature and knows his game well. He's been given a go so now he must have a proper run - five, six or seven Tests to see what he can do. As things stand, South Africa are very lucky to have those him and de Kock to choose from."
Cook believes that in years to come, South Africa will have more to choose from, despite the disappointing performances of the Under-19s, who are a different group to the one that won last year's World Cup. "That kind of thing happens - some years you get a really good group and some years you don't. I see that at school level a lot, it can go in cycles," Cook said.