Dust off your caffeine IV and get your eye-perking toothpicks ready – the most enthralling series since England was so utterly disappointing on home turf a few months ago is about to unfold. The action starts at The Gabba at 2am on Friday, South African time, and ANT SIMS previews the action.
Whenever you talk to Gary Kirsten about what he hopes to achieve with the current Proteas team or what he hopes to achieve as a coach, he’ll always give the same answer. He wants his charges to be the best team in the world in all formats. Whether being the best is measured by an erratic ranking system is another question, but South Africa is currently the number one Test team in the world – a label which has, ironically, been an albatross on the team’s neck’s at times.
India was thrashed in England last year when its team was number one, and England was given a flogging in its own backyard earlier this year – similarly, while being ranked number one. Now it’s South Africa’s turn to see what it can do with this seemingly poisoned chalice.
South Africa and Australia squared off in South Africa last year in a series which ended 1-1 and included a Test where the Aussies were dismantled and bowled all-out for 47. South Africa’s Dale Steyn described the series as being like the first two rounds of a heavyweight boxing match – just as soon as everybody had found their feet, it was all over.
It’s a bit different this time, though. With three Tests and all to play for, both teams have plenty of expectation resting on them. The first Test takes place in Brisbane – a ground where South Africa has never won a Test, and not played at all since the 1960s. The Aussies, meanwhile, have won 33 of their 54 matches here and lost just eight.
Going to Australia is a daunting task for anybody. Going to a ground like the Gabba, not knowing what to expect, is something completely different – and South African skipper Graeme Smith is well aware of the challenges his side faces.
"We understand that this is a big challenge for us, coming to Australia again to win, and we realise there are a few unknowns," said Smith.
"A Gabba Test is something we haven't really experienced... we need to maximise our preparations and come together as a team quickly, and understand what it's going take to be successful here.
"We are very focused on the immediate challenge, and we believe that if we perform well here, it will be a stepping stone to hopefully having the opportunity to retain that number one status."
While the two teams’ pace attacks are tipped to be the big thing, the Gabba’s curator has said there will certainly be something on offer for the slower bowlers, as well as plenty for the batsmen.
"There's always going to be that nip around for the first couple of hours, and then it tends to flatten out and the moisture goes out of it. Then it's a pretty good batting wicket, but a new-ball deck. Given a nice day you'd tend to want to have a bat first. But sometimes we get humid weather in Brisbane, and as you know, the ball swings around a bit,” said curator Kevin Mitchell Jr.
If the Gabba does have something on offer for the spinners, Imran Tahir will be under the microscope. Since bursting onto the domestic scene and into the Test side, he has struggled to be consistent and has been well under par. While he does have the help of the fast men to do the initial damage, Tahir’s focus will have to be on not losing his head as soon as things go a little bit wrong. The spinner is far from technically astute, and his biggest failure is often following up a bamboozling googly with a ball which bounces twice. Such amateur errors are something South Africa can ill afford, and if ever pressure was on one man, it’s on Tahir for the first Test. If he plays, of course.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Vernon Philander has enjoyed a meteoric rise since he made his debut against Australia last year. He’s got swagger, he’s got accuracy, and he’s got the talent to burn and demolish batting attacks. Since making his bow, Philander has continued to prove anybody who doubts him wrong and there’s no doubt he’ll want to do more of the same against South Africa’s biggest enemy.
Matthew Wade was given the gloves ahead of Brad Haddin for the first Test, again. He’s not really blown anybody’s mind since he was first picked for Australia, but Wade has the ideal chance to cement his place in the side and reward the selectors’ faith in him. He’s fresh off an unbeaten 50 in the Sheffield Shield competition, and if he can dig in and translate some of his first-class form to some solid knocks in this series against South Africa, he’ll be well set to serve behind the stumps for years to come. DM
Photo: South Africa's Hashim Amla takes a catch at Sydney Cricket Ground during a practice session October 31, 2012. REUTERS/Tim Wimborne