South Africa's cricketers are experiencing their first, full-length winter break in 14 years. The team last played on March 25, when they were dumped out of the World Cup at the quarter-final stage and they will not take the field again until October 13, giving them a break of almost seven months.
Some, like JP Duminy and Graeme Smith, are using the time to tie the knot while others, like Dale Steyn, have gone on an extended holiday. But the likes of Roelof van der Merwe and Loots Bosman aren't curling up around fires or exploring parts of the world that cricket doesn't take them to. They're part of the South Africa A side that have headed to Zimbabwe, where they will play in a tri-series also featuring Australia A.
The trip to Zimbabwe is short, with South Africa A playing just four one-day games, but significant. Ten of the 14 players in the A side have been part of the senior national team before and, with no other competitive cricket before the season starts, have to take this opportunity to stake their claim for a national recall.
Vincent Barnes, the South Africa A coach, enunciated the significance of the tour. "We've sent an important message to these players, that this is not just an ordinary tour or just any other set of pre-season games," he told ESPNcricinfo. "We need to find out who's next, in terms of everything from wicketkeeping to spin."
With Heino Kuhn and van der Merwe the only specialist wicketkeeper and spinner in the A squad respectively, it is clear that they have been identified as players for the future. The trip to Zimbabwe will present the pair with the chance to break further away from the chasing pack, with the focus on van der Merwe, now that South African attitudes are more embracing to spin. The left-arm spinner is known for his aggression with both bat and ball and is experienced enough to merit another stint at the highest level. "Roelof fell by the way side with the national team a few years ago, but he has worked really hard in our camp over the last few days and showed his commitment," Barnes said.
In the batting department, Jacques Rudolph, who will captain the A side and is being tipped for a recall to the South Africa team, will be closely watched. Rudolph returned from Yorkshire last season to play domestic cricket in South Africa. He topped the run-scoring charts in the 2010-11 SuperSport Series and was the fourth-highest run-scorer in the MTN40 tournament. His captaincy of Titans, and of South Africa A during the home series against Bangladesh A, has been innovative and his maturity evident. "My goal is always to score as many runs as possible," he said. "It's a good time to show the strength and depth of our cricket."
The fast bowlers could prove the most interesting area, with none of the five quicks in the A squad having finished the MTN40 season in the top ten on the bowling charts. Vernon Philander and Rusty Theron are considered the two closest to a comeback for South Africa. Philander has been outstanding at first-class level, but less so in the limited-overs formats. "It will be good to play against more international players and see how I go against the big boys," Philander said.
Philander last played for South Africa in August 2008 and said that being dropped allowed him to develop as a player. "I know a lot more about my game now than I did before and I know what's expected at international level."
Theron has had a frustrating time; he has been picked for various South Africa squads and given a national contract but has only played five Twenty20 internationals and four ODIs. He said he will use this tour to show that he is a "complete bowler." Theron is known to be a death-over specialist but feels he can offer more. "I can also bowl an efficient first spell and come back in the middle as well. If there is a good training ground to show those skills, this is it."
Allan Donald, who took over as national bowling coach when Gary Kirsten was appointed on June 6, is accompanying Barnes on the tour in order to get a first-hand look at the fast bowlers. Donald replaced Barnes and, on the face of it, the situation they find themselves in appears, at best, awkward. But Barnes denied any tension and said the pair enjoyed "sharing ideas."
The tour is Barnes' first in his new position at the High Performance Centre, after he spent eight years with the national team. While it is mostly about the players proving their worth, Barnes said he will also use it as a step to re-establishing himself as a coach in his own right. "It's very good to be able to consider myself a head coach now," he said. "I am actually running the nets and not just working with the bowlers now."