GRAEME Smith's SA squad brought the first sunshine in two weeks to Taunton yesterday as their preparations for the Test series against England began in earnest.
But a dark cloud hovered in the form of injuries that are likely to keep both Alviro Petersen and Marchant de Lange out of the two-day tour match against county side Somerset that starts today.
Petersen hurt a foot on a run in Taunton on Saturday while De Lange is still feeling the effects of the back strain that hampered him during the Proteas' Twenty20 series in Zimbabwe last month. Both trained at the county ground yesterday, and their ailments are considered niggles rather than serious threats to their fitness.
De Lange is probably not part of the current Test XI but Petersen is the first choice to partner Smith at the top of the innings, so his progress will be watched closely.
The match starting today will look more like a middle practice than a proper game of cricket, what with the teams agreeing to use more than 11 players each and the prospect of a result rendered remote by the format and the weather.
A three-day match against Kent in Canterbury on Friday will be closer to the match intensity the Proteas will need to reach before the first Test at the Oval in London next Thursday.
"We've got 14 days' prep before the first Test and we felt, after chatting with all the guys, that that was going to be sufficient," SA coach Gary Kirsten said yesterday after a training session.
"We haven't had much game time so where we might lose out a little bit on match intensity we'll pick up on mental freshness. It's not an exact science but, come the 19th, hopefully our preparation will be where we need it to be."
The Test series will decide whether England will retain their No1 world ranking or be surpassed by SA, but Kirsten seemed reluctant to attach too much significance to the showdown.
"It's part of a bigger picture for us," he said. "We know it's an important stepping stone to where we want to go as a Test team.
"We felt we needed a 10% tweak just to take us to the top of the pile. We're close now - we know what we need to do. If we get our processes right, like we know we need to against top opposition, we can get there," he said.
SA came to England after a training camp in Switzerland where cricket was not part of their programme. Kirsten described the camp as a means to an end.
"As a team, we want to put ourselves through challenges, and not necessarily always cricket challenges, that can test us as a unit - everyone pulling together and pulling the weaker guys through, and the camp created that for us."
Yesterday's training ended with the squad walking the kilometre or so through the quiet, quaint streets of Taunton back to their hotel.
n Australia coach Mickey Arthur has called on his team to show some "mongrel" against archrivals England as they bid for a consolation victory in a lopsided one-day series.
The tourists head into tomorrow's finale at Old Trafford having already lost the five-match campaign at 3-0 down after a trio of crushing defeats was interrupted only by Wednesday's total washout at Edgbaston.