We honestly didn’t expect to be in this position. All of the smart money in the first Test was on South Africa annihilating Australia, utterly destroying any idea of a revival in the host nation’s fortunes. At this point we expected to see Australia in tatters, limping into Adelaide with their tails between their legs, Ricky Ponting in tears, David Warner up on charges of assault and battery against the entire audience of the post-match press conference and Nathan Lyon to be granted his dream of being put on permanent gardening leave.
Instead it’s South Africa who have somewhat limped into Adelaide, their position as Test cricket’s number one side under severe threat. Australia started the first Test pathetically, but by the end were all over the tourists. If the second day hadn’t been completely washed out, Australia could well have won it. Which was a turnaround on par with the English middle order’s form with the bat in recent years.
Things are rosy in the Australian camp right now. All of the pre-match talk has been, predictably, about Shane Watson’s fitness but it’s lacked the sort of panicked tone you might expect. Australia would love to have Watson to call upon, both as batsman and bowler, but you get the distinct impression that they feel they’re capable of winning without him, partly because of the emergence of Ed Cowan as a competent batsman in the last Test and partly because of the blistering bowling efforts of Australia’s prized new all-rounder, Rob ‘Bobby’ Quiney. But mostly because, even though Australia only drew the first Test, it felt like a win.
The accepted wisdom is that you don’t change a winning team, and Australia will largely proscribe to that sentiment for the second game. There has been some talk that David Warner could have been out on his arse if Watson had been proven fit, but much like Warner himself, a lot of that talk was probably just hot air, a not so subtle indication to Warner that he needs to lift his game. The selectors probably didn’t need to bring the matter up publicly and could have informed Warner of their concerns privately, but since the man himself seems to only be able to communicate by ranting utter crap to the press, they probably decided upon the same method as the only medium he could actually understand.
Australia had the chance of making one change ahead of the second Test via the recall of the greatest fast bowler since Waqar Younis, Mitchell Starc, to the starting eleven. A player who could either take 20 wickets, or be shown up as a white ball only bowler. Instead they chose to stick with Ben Hilfenhaus, who had the misfortune of appearing to bowl slower than Quiney (or even Graeme Smith come to that) in the Brisbane Test. So that’s a decision that couldn’t possibly backfire on them in any way.
South Africa came into the first Test looking unbeatable. After a sub-par performance with the ball, and a distinctly worrying semi-collapse with the bat on the last day, they look far from invulnerable. The South African middle order looks increasingly fragile, and it remains to be seen whether replacing the crooked Jean-Paul Duminy will improve things or not. In any case Faf Du Plessis will be the new man in, a player more noted for his fielding than anything else. Kinda like Steve Smith, before he turned into the next Don Bradman. The question of how much longer they can continue with De Villiers behind the stumps also looks to be coming to a head, with his ability to handle the dual roles coming under increasing criticism.
With Hashim Amla and Jacques Kallis both in incredible form, any concerns over the South African batting needs to be qualified quite a bit. But they’d feel a lot more comfortable if a few of the other guys could start contributing a few more runs. The bowling is also not without its problems. Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander both looked far below their best in Brisbane, while Morne Morkel started well before fading badly. With Rory Kleinveldt being put out to pasture, the South African bowling can’t help but improve, although with Imran Tahir set to be the man to take his place, the question is by how much.
Despite a lot of comments to the contrary emanating from the Australian camp (most of them from Warner it must be said), South Africa must still be slight favourites for the second Test. Although it is misfiring somewhat, their batting lineup still looks comfortably stronger than the hosts, whose top order is still an unmitigated disaster. Plus their bowling can only improve from the Gabba. You wonder, on the other hand, how much Australia could improve on their first Test performance. They are worryingly over-reliant on their captain to score the bulk of their runs (where else have we heard that recently…) and with the selectors passing on the opportunity to introduce Starc to provide some much needed variety into their pace attack, the necessity of falling back on Nathan Lyon to take the bulk of the wickets, on an expected batsman friendly deck, looms large. A dire prospect indeed.
In fact, considering the quality (or otherwise) of the front-line spinners on both sides it’s hard to predict any other result than a bore draw. Which would mean the series would go to a no-holds barred, winner takes all, shoot out at Perth the week after. Which sounds bloody awesome to us.