And so at last we come to it. The great Test series of our time. Sorry, we just got the Director’s edition box set of Lord of the Rings in the office here. Although like most things, it pays not to enquire too closely as to how Nichael came about it, or the suspicious bite marks on his legs and his complaints about over protective family poodles. Anyway, to get back on topic, there’s hardly anything epic about the upcoming Australia vs. South Africa clash. A contest between the top two teams in Test cricket it may apparently be, but the amount of navel gazing from the hosts in particular in the lead up would scarcely lead you to believe that the number one position in Test cricket is at stake. This doesn’t feel so much like a clash of titans, as a clash between one titan and one very scared puppy that has just made a mess all over the carpet.
In truth neither side could claim to be completely without concerns going into this series, but whilst we will cover South Africa’s weaknesses below (with their propensity to choke, of course, looming large), Australia’s problems will require rather more space to cover. Plus we just love to bitch about David Warner.
The Australian summer began with the usual bluster, as commentators pointed to the strength of the Australian pace attack and claimed it was easily capable of leading the team to Test success against the Proteas. Sure these South Africans had done pretty well for themselves recently, winning a series against someone or other, and apparently that Amla bloke scored a few runs as well. But no matter, Peter Siddle and co would sort them out sharpish.
But cracks in this solid front of typically arrogant confidence began to appear when it was realised that whatever damage the Australian attack could inflict on the South Africans would be dwarfed by what theirs could in turn unleash on the Aussie lineup. In the last round of Sheffield Shield fixtures before the first Test, the top five batsmen in the Australian batting lineup managed 55 runs between them, of which Shane Watson scored 33. So when Watson was later ruled out of the first Test with a calf injury, it’s fair to say the assembled Aussie media immediately panicked en masse.
The simple problem for Australia is not knowing where the runs going to come from. None of the Australian batsmen could claim to be in top form at the moment, and a few are in appalling nick. The opening pair of Warner and Ed Cowan in particular looks far from settled. Cowan has looked just about okay so far this season, whilst Warner looks to have brought his rubbish form from the past few months back home with him. The only hope is that Warner miraculously ‘comes off’ at least once, whilst Cowan will hopefully scratch around long enough to get Dale Steyn at least somewhat annoyed. On what is expected to be a green Gabba wicket, even that is probably expecting too much.
Not much more needs to said about the rest, Ricky Ponting has been troubled with a hamstring strain but should play, while nobody is really sure who out of Nathan Lyon and Mitchell Starc will make the cut. The absence of Watson will probably (hopefully) convince the selectors to pick the in form Starc rather the woefully out of form Lyon. The debutant Rob Quiney will be in for a rough time of it. It’s hard to say even where he will bat, as most will be hoping Michael Clarke elevates himself up the order to number three, giving Quiney at least some breathing room further down the order.
Compared to the Aussies, everything in South Africa’s camp is rosier than the rosiest rose in their rosiest rose garden. They come into the series in good Test form, if that counts for anything after a long break, while most of their injury concerns have eased and virtually every batsman made runs in their warm-up with Australia A. Although, it must be said, they were helped by Australia A deciding to play no actual bowlers and instead pick a side inspired by England’s glory days of the 90’s, full of bits and pieces all rounders. And Steve Smith.
That isn’t to say everything is fine. All of the slightly questionable positions in the team from before their tour of England remain; Alviro Petersen and Jacques Rudolph still look like they could be weak spots, while AB de Villiers’ workload continues to be an issue. Part of South Africa’s problem is that they hardly play any practice matches, so there is no opportunity to play around with the balance of the side – giving Thami Tsolikele a chance, for example – outside of the Tests themselves. At the risk of stomping all over well-trodden ground, de Villiers is not the best ‘keeper in the country nor does having him behind the stumps give him the best chance to excel as a batsman. The Proteas are good enough to not have to play him as an all-rounder, especially while Jacques Kallis is still around.
Those little issues aside, South Africa’s biggest potential pitfall could be the Curse Of The Number One Spot which seems to be particularly powerful and their propensity to… what is it again? Ah yes, choke. We’ve said before that people often confuse ‘choking’ with ‘not being very good’, and that is particularly true of de Villiers’ side at the World T20. In the Test arena they are a different bag of spuds. They have proven themselves as a very strong outfit and go into this series as big favourites in most quarters; if they manage to balls this up the ‘c’ word is going to get some serious airtime. A Karbon Kamal Choke, anyone?
For all of our pessimism towards the hosts’ chances, it should be admitted that they actually have a pretty decent record at the Gabba. So whilst on paper it may be a lopsided contest, in fact it may well prove far more closely contested then that. We’re actually at something of a loss to predict a winner, and only have any real conviction in predicting that as long as mother nature keeps her pesky hands out of things, the game is hardly likely to enter a fifth day.
But, since this part of the article calls for a prediction, we are contractually obliged to comply.
South Africa. Just.