Is Craig McDermott on the money about our bowling attack?

Date: December 27, 2013 / Posted by Glenn Mitchell

Australia’s fast bowling coach Craig McDermott made a big call the other day when he said, “I think we’ve got the best attack in the world”.

No doubt many South Africans would have pricked their ears up.

McDermott’s theory will be put to the ultimate head-to-head test in February when Michael Clarke’s team takes on the world number one ranked Proteas in a three-Test series in the Republic.

Within hours of McDermott’s comments the ICC released its latest player rankings.

For the first time in quite a while South African spearhead Dale Steyn was not atop the list.

But while the name at the top of the tree may be different the nationality stays the same.

On the back of a seven-wicket haul in the engrossing opening Test of the series against India at Johannesburg, Vernon Philander (912 points) swapped places with Steyn (890) to still leave South Africa with a quinella at the top of the table.

Interestingly, Philander’s total of 912 points is four better than Steyn’s highest career mark that he registered in February this year.

Proteas’ beanpole Morne Morkel (11th, 704) is the third member of his team’s specialist pace bowling triumvirate.

The best-placed Australian is Ryan Harris (796) who comes in at number five, one place ahead of teammate Peter Siddle (786).

One of the biggest movers in the latest rankings is the rejuvenated Mitchell Johnson (663) who has rocketed to number 15.

So, in terms of the current specialist pace bowlers in operation for both Australia and South Africa, the Aussies have numbers 5, 6 and 15 in the rankings while the Proteas possess numbers 1, 2 and 11.

That would tend to indicate that Graeme Smith’s team holds a significant advantage.

The one ‘X’ factor however is the form of Johnson.

He has returned from Test exile with a far greater self-belief that has been bolstered by his ability to harness in unison both raw pace and control, two things that have not always gone hand-in-hand for the strongly built left-hander.

He was devastating in the opening two Tests of the current Ashes series with consecutive man-of-the-match awards.

He heads into the Boxing Day encounter having claimed 24 wickets in the opening three matches at an average of 15.5.

In mid-2009 Johnson reached his highest score in the Test bowler’s table when he registered 825 points – a number that would currently have him ranked number four in the world.

It could be argued that he is bowling as well nowadays as he did back then – some may even say better.

He is certainly a man on the rise at present and if he can continue to produce as he has this summer his points will likely rise quicker than any others mentioned above.

South Africa will be very wary of Johnson given that in early 2009 he twice broke Smith’s thumb and forced Jacques Kallis to retire hurt at Durban after a frightful blow to his helmet.

The Proteas’ has a significant player ahead of the Australia series with Jacques Kallis announcing in the last 24 hours that today’s Test against India at Durban will be his last.

Aside from 13,174 runs (4th all-time) and 199 catches (2nd all-time) he has also taken 292 Test wickets from his 165 appearances.

Replacing Kallis will provide a few headaches for the selectors as he has been a genuine fourth pace bowler in the South African side for nearly two decades whilst also holding doen the number four spot so superbly.

Australia will likely still field a batting all-rounder in the shape of Shane Watson who is ranked number 38 in the world with the ball.

While not necessarily a prolific wicket-taker his tightness of line and length is a major plus to the Australian attack.

There are two areas where Australia does have a clear advantage over South Africa in the bowling department.

The first is the spin bowling area.

Nathan Lyon enters the Boxing Day Test having seen off Graeme Swann (who retires ranked number 15 on the current top bowlers’ list) as the best spin bowler in this Ashes series with ten wickets at 31.4.

He needs a further five wickets to become just the fifth Australian off-spinner to claim 100 Test scalps and is well on the way, like Swann, to become his country’s most prolific offie – Hugh Trumble is the Australian benchmark with 141 wickets.

Lyon’s 95 wickets have come at a cost of 33.0 in his 28 Tests to date, ranking him number 21 in the world.

His back-up role to the Aussie quicks this summer has been outstanding and he has captured some key wickets.

Contrast that with South Africa’s incumbent spinner, leggie Imran Tahir.

In 13 Tests he has captured 36 wickets at 43.1 and is ranked number 55 in the world.

Tahir is well-known for his propensity to put in woefully expensive and ineffective spells, something that Lyon has overcome.

Australia’s biggest advantage over South Africa with regard to their respective bowling stocks is the sheer depth within Australia’s ranks.

Beyond Steyn, Philander and Morkel there is not a lot with reasonable Test experience.

Some would say they don’t need to worry, which is all fine and true as long as injuries are held at bay – something that cannot ever be taken for granted as Australia can certainly attest to.

Should South Africa need to call-up a specialist quick for the series against Australia there is not a lot on offer in terms of proven experience over a prolonged.

Thirty-year-old Rory Kleinvedlt has played four Tests for 10 wickets at 42.2 while 26-year-old Kyle Abbott has made one Test appearance, albeit a successful one with nine wickets against Pakistan and Marchant de Lange who has played two Tests for nine wickets 30.8.

Australia has Doug Bollinger back in career-best form (12 Tests, 50 at 26.0) – he has been in the Australian squad as cover for the past few Tests.

Several currently or recently sidelined quicks will be up and raring to go by the time Australia heads to South Africa.

Amongst them will be Ben Hilfenhaus (99 at 28.5), James Pattinson (47 at 26.4), Mitchell Starc (41 at 33.6), and Jackson Bird (13 at 23.3).

Beyond that there are ODI players who are yet to be awarded a baggy green like Nathan Coulter-Nile and Josh Hazlewood.

When the eagerly anticipated series gets underway early next year South Africa will rightly start as favourite.

Australia’s attack will be faced by a far more accomplished batting line-up than their Proteas’ counterparts will have to face.

But, if the Australian bowlers can replicate what they have achieved in this Ashes series they could go a long way to fulfilling McDermott’s prophecy.

Either way, it will be an intriguing contest to follow.

First published on The Roar – theroar.com.au – on 26 December 2013