The path to glory begins
With the Ashes doused and the extraordinary World Cup climax seeming like some mad dream/nightmare depending on your allegiance, a new cycle begins on Sunday when India and South Africa meet in Dharamsala in the first of a three-game T20 series. Just another money-making appendage to the more esteemed Tests and ODI? Not this time. The World Twenty20 is just over a year away and the fine-tuning or ripping up and starting again begins now.
India are second-favourites for the title, a slither behind hosts Australia at 4.904/1 to 4.507/2. India are tweaking. South Africa, out at 9.08/1 on the outrights are being bold. Quinton de Kock will lead the team in the absence of Faf Du Plessis in an audition for the job full-time.
Perversely, South Africa are rated as the third-best team in the world by the ICC, one spot ahead of India. The No. 1 team are Pakistan but any hope that there is monster rick on the market with them priced at 13.012/1 might, eventually, be dashed. Pakistan's sequence of 17 wins in 18 last year could be an example of another ending of a cycle. They were poor in losing 2-1 to South Africa in February and were then walloped by seven wickets against England.
India and South Africa are the established and emerging force respectively on data. India's win percentage in the last two years is 62, South Africa's 77, although it's hard to get carried away because it's only a seven-game sample and three were against Zimbabwe. England have won their last five and with their run rate higher than anyone else in the study period could they finally have brought their ODI brand of ruthless recklessness to the format which perhaps suited best?
The hosts are using the series to add to their established bowling group so Jasprit Bumrah and Bhuv Kumar are not risked. Here Khaleel Ahmed, Deepak Chahur and Navdeep Saini interview to join the pace attack. Washington Sundar and Rahul Chahar are aiming to split Kuldeep Yadav and Yuz Chahal, neither of whom are picked. In truth, they're just looking to get on the plane - Yuz and Kuldeep are at Nos 2 and 3 in the top wicket chart in the last two years. Afghanistan's Rahsid Khan is top.
South African changes are more about mindset. It's a cycle within a cycle for them. If they establish an entrenched attacking ethos it could carry them to the next 50-over World Cup. After the disappointing World Cup campaign - which was ruined by injuries - they may finally have cottoned on that they have to give a hugely talented crop of batsmen licence to attack, much in the same style as England's winners. They have 20 games before the tournament to find their mojo.
A new South Africa
So often stodgy and safe, new team director Enoch Nkwe does not sound at all typically South African: "At the end of the day, as a professional team, we're entertainers," he said. "We hope that the kind of cricket we'll be playing out there, people will be able to read and understand the brand of cricket we want to play. It's a new chapter, and there are some new characters in the group. We're still in the process of defining ourselves, but I know for sure that the guys want to get out there and play some exciting cricket."
De Kock, then, will be expected to lead from the front with no fear of the consequences. Reeza Hendricks and Rassie van der Dussen are others who should benefit from being told 'see it, hit it, don't worry about where it goes'. Not including contracted Theunis de Bruyn, top scorer in the domestic T20 tournament at a strike rate of 161, suggests they are yet to fully commit to the gung-ho approach, though.
The same needs to be true with their bowlers. Kagiso Rabada and Andile Phehlukwayo will lead the attack and are not a worry. And there's plenty to get excited about in terms of a third seamer - Beuran Hendricks and Anrich Nortje are rapid and spy a chance with Lungi Ngidi not included. Rohit Sharma, still the best T20 batter in the world, and Virat Kohli will have a job on their hands. Shreyas Iyer and Rish Pant are one decent knock away from confirming their positions for a long time.
The issue for South Africa is spin. Will Tabraiz Shamsi, finally, start to take his chance with Imran Tahir retired? If South Africa are to challenge in Australia, they need him to fire. Shamsi should be paired with Bjorn Fortuin in the series. Whoever comes out on top is likely to get the gig.
Pressure is on those two in game on in Dharamsala which could be a pace-off pitch. It will be a baptism of fire for the batters and the new strategy, too. It is very possible that South Africa will go hard, too hard and it could end in calamity. Fingers crossed they don't lose faith after just one game.