Can South Africa topple Australia ?Paul Wood |
It may seem a long time ago now, but South Africa did do a very professional job in clinching their first Test series victory in England since their re-introduction to international cricket. Now on the horizon is the ultimate challenge – repeating the dose against the world champions in Australia. Victory here, and South Africa can lay reasonable claim to being the new team to beat.
The last time Graeme Smith led his men to the home of the world’s finest cricket team in 2005/06, they arrived with purpose and a seemingly steely determination to make life as uncomfortable as possible for Australia. Confidence and expectation was heightened by a battling draw in the opener at Perth. However, it was downhill from there, capitulating to Shane Warne and Glenn Mcgrath, like so many have, after a compellingly close battle at Melbourne. Smith’s men then let it slip at Sydney in the final Test when looking in complete control. Two centuries from Ricky Ponting in his 100th Test, resulted in Australia completing a comfortable eight wicket victory. Worse was to follow for South Africa, when a 3-0 battering in the return home leg two months later, meant there was a palpable gap between the sides.
If it is to be a different story this time round, it is vital that South Africa are able to select their strongest 11. That may sound as obvious as to suggest they need to score more runs and take 20 Australian wickets, but the main difference between Australia and all the other sides in recent years is their strength in depth, and this is one area where South Africa quite simply cannot compete.
Both batting line-ups look strong, but any nation that cannot find room for batsmen such as Brad Hodge, Simon Katich and David Hussey in their eleven could result in some long days in the Australian sun for the touring side. While South Africa have no such depth to their pool of talent, the players currently occupying the positions look a match for most.
Jacques Kallis is the only South African batsman that did not enhance his reputation on the recent tour to England. Smith and Neil McKenzie were cautious and patient yet quick to cease on any scoring opportunity, and currently average over 80 for the first wicket (a figure inflated due to their 415 run stand against a particularly unpenetrative Bangladesh attack in Chittagong).
Hashim Amla showed England flashes of the improvement he has made since they saw him last in 2004/05, his wristy strokeplay through the on-side an obvious feature, while Prince and de Villiers demonstrated their contrasting yet equally effective styles in consistently frustrating England’s attack. Prince the nuggety hard worker, de Villiers more the aggressor, whose understanding of the game and his role is much improved. His 217 not out against India in Ahmedabad and 174 against England at Headingley are testament to his growing maturity.
South Africa will need this top six, plus Mark Boucher, to hit the ground running in Australia, and evade injuries at all costs. The depth of South African batting should absences occur, in terms of proven international quality, looks thin. Jacques Rudolph, Boeta Dippenaar, Martin van Jaarsveld and a host of others have currently exercised their right to sign a much more lucrative ‘Kolpak’ contract available to them in England’s domestic cricket. Consequently depriving their nation of the necessary experience in the squad that may prove crucial in the unforgiving tour that is Australia.
Herschelle Gibbs could be selected as a back-up player, otherwise it is inexperience all the way. JP Duminy, Justin Ontong (it may be unwise to evoke memories of his Test debut in Sydney when he was controversially selected ahead of Rudolph due to racial targets), and lesser known players such as Amla’s older brother Ahmed, the relatively experienced Arno Jacobs, Alviro Petersen, Henry Davids and Andrew Puttick may offer alternative options. The latter two enjoying excellent domestic seasons last year averaging 48.05 and 42.83 respectively.
You cannot help but think Brett Lee and co may be licking their lips should such internationally naive players be thrown into such a high pressure series.
Also to factor in to South African squad selections is the need for them to meet the racial targets, which has been known to cause more than a few debates. Charl Langeveldt’s recent retirement was due to his selection when he clearly thought Andre Nel was the better option, but was chosen on colour as averse to form and ability.
Australia have shown recent signs that the transitional period, forced upon them due to the well documented retirements, was to endure rocky patches along the way, although they have won all series since. The three Tests in West Indies were much closer than most thought they should be.
Mitchell Johnson was below par against India, while Stuart Macgill’s retirement and the lack of a genuine spinner to take over, means that neither side has a well renowned top class spinner in their ranks. Paul Harris worked hard to restrict in England, but he may find a line up consisting of Ponting, Michael Clarke and Mike Hussey, all adept at using their feet to spinners, a different proposition, and if Matty Hayden or Andrew Symonds seize him up, it could get messy for the tall spinner.
Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel may find the tracks more receptive to their high speed bowling and Morkel in particular will relish the tracks that offer that extra bit of bounce. It may be that they find themselves in a head to head with Australia’s reliable two – Brett Lee and Stuart Clark. Makhaya Ntini’s powers appear to be on the wane, despite a throwback to his old days with his 17th Test 5 for in the last Test in England. Until that point he had looked ineffective and you have to fear for him should he come up against, and likely to be bullied by, Matthew Hayden.
South Africa themselves may seek a period of transformation in the one-day arena, following their 4-0 thrashing by England. A lack of viable all-rounder options has meant recent talk has surrounded the hopeful retrieval of Kolpak players from England, such as Ryan Mclaren of Kent, to revitalise and rebuild the side.
Before South Africa head off for Australia they have a series at home to Bangladesh, that should in all honesty be a formality. With such a crowded international schedule, they can only find time to play a two-day game against Western Australia to get adjusted to Australian conditions. Many sides have entered the first Test against Australia under prepared, the Bangladesh series should help the players find some form, but with the jump in class and change in conditions, Mickey Arthur must ensure they are firing from ball one and a solitary warm up game is perhaps far from ideal.
Every side needs luck to conquer Australia and South Africa will be no different. Beating England was a good indication of the strengths within this South African side, but Australia are made of much sterner stuff and are in the fortunate habit of knowing how to win Test matches, even when they are not at their best. I expect the hosts willl take the series but may find things much more difficult in South Africa.