Let’s get real – Australia faces a tough task

Date: February 13, 2014 / Posted by Glenn Mitchell

The Ashes was a relative doddle.

The three-Test tour of South Africa, starting tonight Australian time, will be anything but a stroll in the park.

History indicates that the Republic has been a happy hunting ground for Australia since South Africa’s reintegration into international cricket – it remains unbeaten having won four series and drawn two.

However, this time around Australia faces the number one team in the world.

The last time the Proteas lost a series was when they hosted Australia in early 2009 with Ricky Ponting’s team triumphing 2-1.

Since then South Africa has played 14 series – split evenly home and away – for eight wins and six draws.

For most of that period they boasted a nucleus of outstanding, and in some cases, great players.

The one missing from this series is champion all-rounder Jacques Kallis who bowed out at the end of his country’s most recent series against India in December.

He left the Test arena after 166 matches which netted 13,289 runs, 45 centuries – the last coming in his final Test – and 292 wickets.

His departure is a significant bonus to Australia.

The Proteas have named two all-rounders in their squad – Ryan McLaren (31yo) and Wayne Parnell (24yo).

McLaren has played one Test and Parnell three with both having made their last appearance at that level in early 2010.

The word out of South Africa is that Parnell is likely to get the nod for the opening encounter at Centurion.

He bowls left-arm at a good pace, which will complement the other fast bowlers, and is more aggressive with the bat than McLaren but a Kallis he is not.

Speaking of pace, this series will feature plenty of it.

The home side boasts the top-two ranked bowlers in the game in Vernon Philander (105 wickets at 18.0) and Dale Steyn (350 at 22.9).

The third quick will be Morne Morkel (183 at 29.9).

There is no doubting the recent form of Australia’s attack with Mitchell Johnson being named man-of-the-series on the back of his destructive 37 wickets at 14.0 against England while Ryan Harris claimed 22 at 19.3.

Through 21 injury interrupted Tests over four years Harris boasts a career record as good as any going around – 93 wickets at 23.0, with a strike rate of 47.

He is currently nestled in behind Philander and Steyn at number three in the world and despite having only returned to the Test arena for the home Ashes Johnson has rocketed to number nine.

The third Aussie seamer for the opening Test will be Peter Siddle who was a steady contributor during the Ashes (16 at 24.1) albeit at a noticeably lesser pace than previously.

His career figures of 183 wickets at 28.7 are almost identical to Morkel with the Australian ranked number five, eight places ahead of his Proteas counterpart.

Australia certainly has the edge in the spin department with Nathan Lyon, at world number 19, improving with every outing.

He now has 104 career wickets at 32.5 following his 19 at 29.4 versus England.

In its last series South Africa tried leggie Imran Tahir in the opening Test against India before he made way for Robin Petersen who is in the squad for tonight’s opening Test.

At 34 years of age he has played just 14 Tests for 35 wickets at 36.6 and sits 69th in the world rankings.

In essence, the two bowling attacks on recent form are perhaps on a par.

The batting is a different equation.

The hosts boast a formidable line-up headed up by the world number one ranked A B de Villiers who boasts a career average of 51.7.

Opener and skipper Graeme Smith averages 49.6 and number three Hashim Amla, despite a lean period of late, averages 51.3.

The only Australian who can match that trio is Michael Clarke with a 102-Test average of 51.4.

The Proteas also have within their ranks Faf du Plessis who the Australians know only too well after his Test saving unbeaten 110 on debut at Adelaide in November 2012.

Since then he has played a further ten Tests and boasts an average of 60.1.

There is no doubting given the quality of both bowling attacks and the well grassed pitches on which they will operate that there will be batting collapses from both sides during the series.

The team that suffers the most, or more importantly fails to rebuild, will be the loser.

Australia had an unacceptable number of top order collapses during the Ashes series with the majority coming tellingly in the first innings – 6-132 at Brisbane; 5-143 at Perth; 6-122 at Melbourne; and 5-97 at Sydney.

England had its chances on each of those occasions to force the issue but failed thanks in the main to stirring counter-attacking batting from Brad Haddin and Steve Smith, and by Johnson at the Gabba.

The South African attack will likely be able to provide the killer blow should the Aussie top-order again splutter in the first innings, requiring it to play catch-up cricket for the rest of the match.

Chris Rogers will be a key at the top of the order with his wealth of first-class experience and the fact he is coming off twin centuries at the end of the Ashes series.

His partner David Warner needs to bat with his traditional aggression but it must be aired at the right time, to the right ball.

It is likely that Alex Doolan will debut at number three tonight which is a tall order against the Proteas attack.

Clarke, who finished the Ashes in an ordinary fashion, and Smith will bat at four and five.

The only spot still in the mix is George Bailey’s replacement at six.

Shaun Marsh was in, then out, and now back in the touring party.

His last-minute omission was as a result of a calf injury which he disposed of in Lazarus-like fashion in scoring a half-century in the Perth Scorchers’ BBL final triumph on Friday.

He was hastily then ordered to the airport.

The man who was the initial beneficiary of Marsh’s short-term injury was Phillip Hughes who has remained in South Africa as part of the squad.

In a two-day intra-team warm-up match he made a well compiled half century and given his additional time to acclimatise to the conditions should get the nod but there is no doubting that the selectors are very keen on Marsh despite his parlous first-class form over the past three Australian summers.

If Australia is to snatch an unlikely series win it needs to keep the South Africans in the field for long periods.

The batsmen will no doubt target Petersen’s left-arm orthodox spinners and if they can hit him out of the attack the workload will fall to the quicks.

With the three Tests to be played in a three week period that could take a toll come the end of the series.

First published on The Roar – theroar.com.au – on 12 February 2014

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