South Africa, Sport

Cricket: Five talking points ahead of the first Test between Australia and South Africa

Cricket: Five talking points ahead of the first Test between Australia and South Africa

Selection conundrums and the value of spin on a deck that has a reputation of being a fast bowlers’ paradise are all points to ponder as Australia and South Africa gear up for what should be a tasty series. By ANTOINETTE MULLER.

The action isn’t even in full swing yet and already Dale Steyn is talking about taking the heads off snakes. Steyn was, of course, referring to South Africa targeting Australian captain Steven Smith in the upcoming three-match Test series. This strategy has been applied by teams the world over and while it’s certainly no secret, Steyn has not been shy of reminding the opposition exactly what their intentions are.

But this snake called Steve is not just any old snake. Since taking over from Michael Clarke, Australia have not lost a Test at home. In fact, Australia have lost just one Test at home since 2012. The last time they lost a Test series on home soil was when South Africa came knocking in 2012.

There is history between these two teams and while the one-day series in which South Africa white-washed them will be long forgotten, the irksomeness of the Proteas won’t, they’ll make sure of that. Before the action begins in the first Test on Thursday, let’s consider some of the important factors at play.

The Spin Doctor

Far too often, a ground’s reputation precedes it. Kingsmead is dictated by the tide, the slope at Lord’s confuses those who have never played there before, Newlands will always crack up. The list goes on. The WACA in Perth, the venue for the first Test, is no different. With its reputation of being a fast bowler’s paradise, Dale Steyn and Kagiso Rabada must be licking their lips at the prospect of bowling here. The stats largely back it up. Over the last five years, the bulk of the wickets have come from the quicks, with Mitchell Starc and Mitchell Johnson leading the pack at 16 and 15 wickets apiece. Third on the list, though, is Nathan Lyon, a spinner, who has 10 – albeit at a mighty high average of 42.00. However, two of South Africa’s highest wicket takers at this ground are spinners too – Robin Peterson and Paul Harris. If a guy who couldn’t even turn in his sleep could take wickets at a venue made for fast bowlers, imagine what somebody with a bit of finger twirling action can do? It’s therefore not a cut-and-dried line-up that will await you when you rise from your slumber at 04:30 on Thursday morning, should South Africa be bowling first, of course.

Who will be the frontline bowlers?

That brings us to the question of bowlers. Steyn and Rabada are, as already mentioned, almost certain starters. South African selectors have to pick between Vernon Philander, Morne Morkel and Kyle Abbott. Each player has his own pros and cons. Philander has only played two Tests in Australia, but has a dubious average (49.75); Morkel has had a long lay-off from injury and Abbott can be inconsistent. They also have to decide if there is room for a spinner and, if so, which one? The Proteas have done the rather unthinkable and opted for not one, but two rookies in the spin department. Keshav Maharaj offers more with the bat than Tabraiz Shamsi, but Shamsi has played international cricket while Maharaj’s CV is still a bit on the thin side. It’s this kind of thing that makes you glad you are not a selector. Warm-up matches are never an outright indication of where players are at and it didn’t really help much either. Morkel was better in the second warm-up in Adelaide, but Philander and Abbott were best in the first one. Maharaj only bowled in the second warm-up and outshone Shamsi. It’s a quagmire of a conundrum that will probably come down to conditions on the first morning.

What to do with the batting order?

The batting line-up is probably a far easier puzzle to solve and oddly enough, AB de Villiers’ absence actually helps a bit. Dean Elgar returns from injury and probably slots right back into the opening slot alongside Stephen Cook. Hashim Amla, Faf du Plessis, Temba Bavuma and Quinton de Kock are also certainties on the team sheet and if we assume South Africa will go with four quicks, that leaves one spot open. JP Duminy, Rilee Rossouw – and possibly Maharaj – are all in contention for that final slot. The question is, then, what does South Africa want out of the final name on the team sheet? Rossouw is inexperienced, but in solid form, however, he offers nothing with the ball. If the quicks tire, and they will in the Australian heat, there is nobody to keep one end tied up and the overs ticking along. Duminy is in decent form, has a solid record in Australia and can bowl a bit, but that bowling comes with a risk. Maharaj, meanwhile, offers the best of both worlds, but is completely inexperienced. Selectors could opt for the radical solution and not play Elgar, move De Kock up the order to open and make use of both Duminy and Maharaj, but that seems unlikely. Whatever the decision, rest assured that coach Russell Domingo, despite what your bias might be telling you, is a wily old fox who loves crunching numbers. He is no doubt agonising over averages and percentage points as you read this.

No longer living in fear of Australia

Up until 2008, if you had mentioned the words “South African cricket tour to Australia” to any South African sports fan, they’d have turned several shades of green. Such was the misery the Aussies had inflicted on the poor Proteas. Since readmission, South Africa’s record there was average: played four, lost three, drew one. But in 2008, that all changed. It was the heady days of the Graeme Smith era and under his tutelage, South Africa had built quite a formidable reputation away from home (more on that later). Four years later, South Africa returned, with Biff still there, but very much towards the end of his career. It hardly mattered, though, because the result was still the same. South Africa won again and suddenly, South African cricket fans no longer turned funny colours when those foreboding words were mentioned. Yes, even with a few rookies in tow, South Africans no longer fear the trip Down Under. That doesn’t mean they take the opposition lightly, but it is no longer the final frontier.

A clean slate for the Road Warriors

Right up until last year’s disaster in India, South Africa had an unparalleled record away from home in Tests. Since 2007, nobody had a better win-loss ratio away from home than them. They had lost just four Tests on away tours in that time period and never lost a series. The tour to India, however, brought them down from those lofty heights with an almighty thump and now they have to start building on that record all over again. But what better place to start than against the old enemy? These two teams always seem to bring out the best in each other and if ever there was a way to reignite the belief that the Proteas still travel better than any other team, a solid performance Down Under will do. DM

The first Test between Australia and South Africa begins on Thursday morning 04:30 SAST.

Photo: South Africa celebrate as Wayne Parnell gets the wicket of David Warner of Australia during the 2016 Momentum One Day International Series game between South Africa and Australia at Centurion Park, Pretoria on 30 September 2016 © Ryan Wilkisky/BackpagePix


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