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Shukri Conrad. Picture: GRANT PITCHER
Shukri Conrad. Picture: GRANT PITCHER

The 10-week window carved into the international calendar for the IPL (Indian Premier League) doesn’t mean Test-playing nations are on holiday. Time is one of life’s great luxuries and SA red-ball coach Shukri Conrad is using it to plan for the future.

“It’s important to look a week ahead, and a month ahead, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t looking much further afield at the big picture and planning for the remainder of the World Test Championship cycle,” Conrad says.

For a man accustomed to speaking unvarnished truths, Conrad found himself in the unfamiliar position of applying lipstick to a pig of a situation in compiling a squad to tour New Zealand from the “forgotten, ignored and leftover” once the SA20 squads were finalised.

The “big picture” to which he refers concerns far more than the results of Test matches, or series. It’s about the resurrection of the Test game and reputation of a team which ruled the world just 12 years ago. In 2012 the Proteas were undisputed Test champions, not just the No 1 ranked team.

Does the Test Championship, deeply flawed as it is, offer SA’s only way back to the glory days? Or should that be salvation ... or survival?

“It’s critical for Test cricket in the majority of countries which play it. The only way back to where we were a dozen years ago is to beat the ‘big boys’ and do it regularly. But we’re not going to do that and win Tests unless we take our best players on tour. 

“We’ve chatted about the long-term significance of our results, the players know what’s at stake,” Conrad said. “If we beat the ‘big three’, playing good cricket, the TV and media demand for more cricket against us will take care of the future. Players don’t need to worry about anything other than performing well, and winning will come,” Conrad said. 

“Yes, there are a lot of imperfections in the World Test Championship and it would obviously be a good idea to see if it can be made fairer for everyone, but it is what it is and, at the moment, it benefits those of us who play shorter series, so we’ve got to try to capitalise on that.”

As things stand, if Australia and India’s remaining results go according to rankings, SA will probably have to win three out of their four Tests in the West Indies and Bangladesh this winter and all four at home against Pakistan and Sri Lanka to earn a place in the World Test Championship final. It would have been a far less daunting task if the “alternative” XI had managed to win a Test in New Zealand.

“One of the unseen positives about the tour to New Zealand was that I was able to spend some quality time with their coaching team, gathering information on how they went about their tour to Bangladesh where they won the second Test to square the series,” Conrad said.

“We might have won both Tests in the Caribbean on the last visit there but the West Indies are a much improved team with a settled quartet of fast bowlers and much improved batting, they won’t be easy in familiar conditions.

“And anybody who thinks the two home series are straightforward obviously doesn’t remember the last time Sri Lanka came here and won the series, against all the odds.

“There has been a hell of a lot of planning, discussing the best ways to manage players careers with domestic coaches and also the medical teams. We probably won’t need a full set of quick bowlers in Bangladesh, for example,” Conrad said.

There was a significant indication that Conrad’s cast-offs for the New Zealand tour may not be disregarded “wholesale” when the mainstream players are available again. The coach is more aware than most of the possible unavailability of his first-choice XI. Even if they want to play Tests.

“I knew I had to transition the side and I’m confident I’ve done that now, I feel good about the players we have and the challenges that lie ahead of us.”

Conrad would not speculate about the composition of future squads. He can’t. Kagiso Rabada might commit his heart and soul to Test cricket, but, as was seen a couple of months ago, financial contracts and the agents who administer them always trump player sentiment.

Back to time: “I’ve got that much of it on my hands I’ve decided to have the knee replacement surgery I’ve been putting off for years. It won’t affect my thinking time,” Conrad said.

He’ll need it. There appear to be as many questions as answers. 

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