Australia’s first challenge after its besting of the English in the Ashes at test match level kicks off tomorrow night at Centurion. This is a massive series for both sides:
· For Australia, it is massive because it is an opportunity to prove to the cricket watching public that the victory over of the English was not just a flash in the pan that arose because the English were in disarray.
· For South Africa, it is the first test series they will face without the greatest player of his generation (I repeat: sorry Sachin but stats don’t lie) in the form of Jacques Kallis and presents an opportunity to solidify their spot as the best team in the world.
South Africa have an imposing record at home:
· They last lost a test match at home in the Boxing Day test match at Durban against Sri Lanka in 2011 when they were bested by 208 runs. Since that time they have played in 8 test matches and won 7 of those with one draw.
· Since their return to international cricket in 1992 they have played 107 tests in total and have won 62 of them whilst loosing 22 and drawing 23.
Conversely, of late, Australia’s record whilst travelling has been, at best, less than impressive:
· Australia has not won a test match away from home since April 2013 when they defeated the West Indies in Roseau by 75 runs. Since that time Australia has played in 9 test matches in India and England for a return of 7 losses and 2 draws.
· That said, Australia’s record in South Africa has been quite impressive since they returned to test match cricket with 11 of South Africa’s 22 losses since 1992 having been against Australia.
This series has been touted by many as a battle of the bowling attacks and the thought of the likes of Steyn, Philander and Morkel going head to head with Harris, Johnson and Siddle has, or ought to have, fans of quality fast bowler and cricket in general salivating. Mitchell Johnson was nothing short of excellent against the English in Australia in the test matches but then struggled in the one day series that followed. He has been a tormenter of the South Africans in the past and will be looking to repeat that role as a tormenter in this series. Dale Steyn is undisputedly (unless you know nothing about cricket) the best bowler in the world. If you deign to disagree with me on this check out the highlights of any of his recent bowling on YouTube. The spinners for both sides, Lyon and Peterson, are underrated by most but have a knack of taking key wickets and will be seen by both respective oppositions as a respite from the pressure of both pace attacks which could make them dangerous.
It must be conceded, having watched the highlights of Australia’s wickets in each test match of the Ashes series that Australia received the benefit of a number of soft wickets from the English that they will not receive, on current form, from South Africa’s batters.
Whilst I think the South African bowling attack is the premier bowling attack in the world at the moment, if one considers the battle between the attacks as being a “draw” it is obvious then that the form of the batting line-ups will be a large determining factor in the outcome of this series.
As I noted in the preamble, the South Africans are looking for a replacement for Jacques Kallis at number 4 and appear, at this stage, to be looking at replacing him with a bowling all-rounder with Faf du Plessis moving up the order. He leaves a 13,000 hole to be filled which is going to be difficult however in Graeme Smith, Hashim Amla and AB de Villiers they possess 3 of the best batsmen in the world to take up the slack.
For Australia, bizarrely, the batting line up is in a state of flux just 5 weeks after the triumphant Ashes series. Shane Watson is out injured and George Bailey was dropped from that line up. There are four players vying for those two spots with Alex Doolan seemingly favourite to bat number 3 despite being in what could, at best, be described as moderate form whilst the rushing return of Shaun Marsh to the squad seems to make him favourite to replace Shane Watson despite, again, moderate form at best and not actually being a bowler.
Whilst Mitchell Johnson won the match of the series in the Ashes, the efforts of Brad Haddin throughout that series was equally, if not more, important to the outcome of it. More often than not, and no more obviously than in the first test, Haddin came to the wicket earlier than reasonably expected and resurrected Australia’s innings. South Africa’s bowlers are a different prospect all together so Australia’s top 6 will need to lift their respective games to ensure that they are not just reliant on such a resurrection if they are to compete in this series.
South Africa is the obvious, and deserving, favourite to win this series. Whilst in my heart I hope Australia can keep the momentum of the last series going in South Africa, I remain concerned that the result in the Ashes flattered Australia in the sense that the Englishmen’s terrible form made Australia look better than they actually and, that being the case, I think South Africa are more likely that Australia to be victorious.
Having just recovered from the 6 weeks of late nights watching the Ashes in England in July / August last year, cricket fans in Australia now must gear up for another period of late nights, caffeinating by drip bottle and banter as well as some excellent cricket. This is going to be a series for the ages.