Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Key battles - South Africa vs Australia Test Series

Over the next few weeks nostalgic cricket fans will reminisce about the artistry of Barry Richards and Graeme Pollock as they elegantly caressed Graham McKenzie, Alan Connolly and John Glesson to all parts of Newlands, the Wanderers, Kingsmead and St. George’s Park. Some will recall Eddie Barlow’s all-round stranglehold on Bill Lawry’s Australian side. A few others will regale tales of the ferocity and pace of Mike Procter and Peter Pollock as they tore through Australia’s fabled batting lineup which, in addition to their venerable captain, featured Keith Stackpole, Ian Chappell and Doug Walters. That epic 4-0 series win in 1970 was meant to announce the arrival of one of the most dominant teams in test cricket, but in stead, South Africa’s sporting exile the lowest injustice amongst the litany of heinous asperities manifested by Apartheid — resulted in the game losing some of its greatest ambassadors to an unfortunate but ultimately necessary political movement against an illegal regime.

Like me, those who grew up watching cricket in the nineties will remember Fanie de Villiers bowling one of test cricket’s most memorable spells as South Africa defeated Australia by six runs defending a modest 117 at Sydney. Then there was Mark Waugh compiling a masterly 116, as his supple wrists guided Australia to a close two-wicket win while chasing 271 on the fast grassy pitch at Port Elizabeth, a result that also a sealed the series, the first time that South Africa lost a test match rubber at home since readmission. The younger Waugh was to be South Africa’s scourge in the return series, compiling an unbeaten 115 of 305 balls as Australia saved the deciding test at the Adelaide Oval, much to the chagrin of the visiting captain Hansie Cronje, who speared a stump through the umpires dressing room in the frustrating aftermath of another series defeat to their greatest rivals.

Those of a more recent persuasion are likely to remember South Africa’s brilliant chase of 414 at the WACA, courtesy of supreme centuries by Graeme Smith and AB de Villiers. The next test at Melbourne was another great advert for the game. With the visitors trailing by 143 in the first innings, JP Duminy and Dale Steyn put on 180 runs for the ninth wicket, to ensure South Africa finished with a lead of 65. Pumped by his batting efforts, Steyn then took a fiver in Australia’s second innings, enabling the visitors to canter home by nine wickets and complete their first test series win over Australia since readmission.

As recently as 2011, the two teams served up a surreal test at Newlands, when Australia routed South Africa for 96, only for the hosts to return the favour by bowling the visitors out for 47, before Hashim Amla and Smith hit delightful centuries to clinch the win. On the verge of their first home victory against Australia, South Africa set a daunting target of 310 at the Wanderers in the next test. With the Aussies 292 for 8, 18-year old Pat Cummins bravely attacked Imran Tahir to deny South Africa at home once again. Finally, 2012 witnessed Faf du Plessis’ remarkable unbeaten 110 that saw the number six bat 466 minutes as South Africa saved a draw from what appeared to be certain defeat at Adelaide. With Australia crestfallen, South Africa thrashed the hosts in Perth to win a second successive test series down under.

The simple fact of the matter is that other than the period between 2000 and 2007, when South Africa’s traumatic rebuilding process in the aftermath of Cronjegate coincided with Australia relentlessly pursuing test match perfection under Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting, matches between these two rivals have always managed to capture the imagination of cricket lovers the world over. As fans of the game look forward to another exciting contest between South Africa and Australia, I take a look at some of the key battles that might be crucial in determining the outcome of the series.

Mitchell Johnson against the Proteas top order

It must seem like an eternity ago, but when Australia were drawing up plans to avenge another Ashes loss to England in August, few would have expected Mitchell Johnson to play such a big role. If it wasn’t for injuries to their first choice bowlers, Johnson probably wouldn’t have even made the squad for the return series. As things turned out, Johnson ended up writing the defining narrative of the recently concluded Ashes, as he terrified England’s batsmen to their downfall with some truly ferocious fast bowling.

History suggests that Johnson might struggle to maintain that form, although he has had plenty of success against South Africa. Johnson played a crucial role in Australia’s successful tour in 2009, when he took 16 wickets at 25 in what was South Africa’s last defeat in a test series. The hosts will hope that Johnson reverts to the form he displayed in the 2011 series, when his three wickets cost 85 runs each.

The South African top order will have to stay firm against a barrage of bouncers. Graeme Smith in particular will not have fond memories of Johnson, having his arm broken twice by his fellow southpaw in the space of three test matches in 2009. That being said, the Proteas skipper has negated Johnson successfully in recent outings and will be prepared for a tough fight. Alviro Peterson is certainly the more vulnerable opener against the new ball, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Michael Clarke has made specific plans for Johnson to pepper with short pitched bowling. Hashim Amla was below par against India in December, but South Africa’s most elegant batsman loves taking on Australia, and if he settles quickly he can score quickly to render Johnson expensive and ineffective. It's an interesting battle, with the side that comes out on top likely to gain a significant advantage in the war.

South Africa’s spearheads against Brad Haddin and the tail

History belongs to the victors, hence it's understandable that not much has been written about Australia’s top order woes during the Ashes. One could argue that Chris Rogers, David Warner, Michael Clarke, Shane Watson and Steve Smith all scored centuries during the series, but collectively they failed majority of the time. Messrs Steyn, Morkel and Philander will be licking their lips at the prospect of bowling against the visiting top order on seaming wickets.

However, that might not prove sufficient as the indefatigable Brad Haddin comes in at number seven. Many seasoned observers believed that the wicketkeeper should actually have been the man of the series against England, always coming in with Australia five wickets down with the score below 150, only to depart having carried the team to scores of 300 and above. It’s conceivable that England would have routed Australia for low scores were it not for the efforts of Haddin.

Despite possessing the best attack in the world, South Africa can at times get frustrated against lower orders and if Mitchell Johnson also contributes with the bat in tandem with Haddin, they could play a crucial role in swinging the momentum in Australia’s favour. Smith will have to ensure his bowlers maintain their intensity throughout the innings to ensure the hosts have control.

The form of Faf and AB

South Africa enter the series with a new number four, as the solid dependability of Jacques Kallis will be replaced with .... uhmm, the solid dependability of Faf du Plessis? Comparing a batsman of Kallis’ stature with the relatively new du Plessis is like comparing apples and oranges. That being said, du Plessis has already displayed fantastic temperament for the position in his nascent test career. A sound defence allied with all the shots in the book, du Plessis will have a crucial role in setting the platform for South Africa’s innings.

After a fairly lean year in 2012-13, AB de Villiers seems to have finally adjusted to the role of keeping wicket and batting at five for South Africa. That South Africa almost chased 458 against India was largely down to the brilliance of de Villiers. If the top four manage to set a decent platform for the team’s most dominant batsman, de Villiers could knock Australia out in a matter of sessions with his brilliant variety of attacking shots.

The all-rounders

When Shane Watson first became an international, Australia had high hopes that he would be their version of Kallis. Unfortunately Watson hasn’t been able to replicate his short form success in test cricket, where technical flaws and fitness issues have exposed him. Watson is going to miss the first test, and there are doubts if he will recover in time for the rest of the series. James Faulkner might get his chance to prove his credentials in the long form after a breakout year in ODI cricket.

Meanwhile South African fans might realize what it feels like for supporters of other teams, as they go into a test match with Jacques Kallis batting at four and bowling second change. It's not a flattering comparison, but having Wayne Parnell or Ryan McLaren replace Kallis draws parallels with David Moyes replacing Sir Alex Ferguson. Parnell and McLaren are decent cricketers in their own right, but as fans of the Red Devils will testify, replacing great with decent does result in a hangover. The solace for the Proteas lies in the fact that the brilliance that exists in the rest of the team allows for a bedding-in period in the search for the team’s next all-rounder.

South Africa’s mental block

Most teams look to win series away from home to signal their dominance in Test cricket. South Africa are that rare example of a team that need to win at home to prove a point after some comprehensive wins on their travels. Winning away to England and Australia in the space of five months twice consecutively is an accomplishment that only the great West Indian teams can match. Yet, it must rankle Smith and his men that they haven’t beaten either England or Australia at home in that same period. In the test arena, South Africa have largely rid themselves of the mental demons that have plagued them in the short form. They have perfected the art of preparation for a big test series. That being said, there is the burden of expectation on the Proteas to finally beat Australia at home, and if the visitors manage to arrive in Cape Town with the series undecided, it could all come down to a battle of nerves, conceivably negating the on field advantages that South Africa possess. We’ll get early indications of both teams' mental condition tomorrow, as the battle commences at SuperSport park in Centurion.
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