The last time South Africa played cricket in the United Arab Emirates was in Sharjah ten years ago. There, they lost to Pakistan by 16 runs in the final of a one-day tri-series that also included India. That South African side included the likes of Nicky Boje, Lance Klusener and Herschelle Gibbs, and was captained by Hansie Cronje on the eve of his fall from grace.
The South African cricketing landscape has undergone major changes in the last decade. Only Jacques Kallis remains a part of the ODI squad from that day in March 2000, and he is a doubtful starter for the latest mission to the Middle East. Kallis has been out of action for over a month with a neck injury, and will be assessed by the South African medical staff ahead of the two Twenty20s against Pakistan.
The rest of the squad will be getting their first taste of cricket in the desert. Not only will the conditions be much warmer than what they are used to, but the schedule much more crammed. Two T20s, five ODIS and two tests have been packed into four weeks. The players left for UAE on Sunday and have only had a day to acclimatise before diving headfirst into the action. "We are not going to have a lot of time to get used to conditions so I hope we will be able to sum them up pretty quickly. We have to be versatile and be able to adapt," said ODI captain Graeme Smith during the whitewash of Zimbabwe that South Africa completed last week.
The matches against Zimbabwe were largely regarded as a warm-up to a season that includes a home series against India and culminates in the World Cup. Smith felt that the victories against Zimbabwe have sent them to the UAE well-prepared in all departments. "The confidence base is good, our batters got time in the middle and bowlers progressively got better. We've done all the hard work ahead of this series."
South Africa experimented with new players against Zimbabwe, with Colin Ingram and Rusty Theron making their debuts. It is all part of Operation World Cup, which involves selecting a team that can finally end South Africa's ICC trophy drought. There are no brand new faces for the Pakistan series, indicating that the focus is now on preparing the players that have been used so far. Coach Corrie van Zyl said he didn't know if the squad for this series can be labelled the final fifteen. "That is a question I would like you to ask Andrew Hudson (chairman of selectors)," joked van Zyl at the team's departure press conference on Sunday.
Ingram and Theron settled into international cricket in outstanding fashion, with Ingram scoring a century on debut and Theron grabbing a five-for in his second ODI. Both staked their claim for a place in the team but face plenty of competition for their spots. Smith made it clear that if Ingram is used he "will play at five or six" as soon as Kallis is fit. Theron will have to do battle with Morne Morkel and Dale Steyn, both of whom are recovering from injuries.
While the new faces are creating waves, there was a more familiar one, who was also entrusted with a new role, also in the spotlight. AB de Villiers looks certain to don the wicketkeeping gloves in the ODI side going forward and showed that he is capable of playing the dual role of keeper-batsman. Besides doing a decent job behind the stumps against Zimbabwe, he also scored back-to-back hundreds and is ranked the world's top ODI player, according to the latest ICC rankings. Mark Boucher (who was also on the 2000 tour) is not taking being dropped lying down. He said losing the wicketkeeping role gutted him and he will fight to regain the spot.
It is this type of inter-player competitiveness that Smith believes will decide the World Cup squad. "This series will give players the opportunity to stake claims. The coaching staff can have ideas for what they want to achieve tactically but ultimately it's the players who put their hands up."
Although Smith is still the senior voice of South African cricket, he will spend the first two matches as just another player. Since relinquishing the T20 captaincy in August, Smith has played under Johan Botha in the shortest format, where he says he enjoys "relaxing on the boundary." Smith will also give up the one-day captaincy after the World Cup and is using the time he has left in charge to "create the best environment I can so that we can be as successful as we can."
With all this introspection, it appears South Africa have given little thought to their opposition. In fact, they have been quietly trying to steer away from being bombarded with the one question that tails Pakistan like a cop behind a drunk-driver: What is your reaction to the spot-fixing controversy? Smith's answer was typical PR speak, "I guess we are going to get this question quite a few times in the next month. For us, it's important that we play the sport in the right spirit. It's our job to go there and play competitive cricket and do our best. We have to trust in the ICC to lead the game. They are the main stakeholders and it's important that they make the right decisions and we trust them to do that."
South Africa know that Pakistan present them with an unpredictable challenge and they want to use the series as a way of testing their skills against a subcontinental team. "This is our first taste of the subcontinent for the summer. It's going to be important for the spinners to see how they are doing and also for the batsmen to see how they play spin. It's a good way of getting the whole squad used to conditions ahead of the World Cup," said Botha. South Africa play ten ODIs before the big tournament. The countdown starts here.