Having demolished England, Michael Clarke has now set his sights on victory in the three-Test series against South Africa. Photo: Reuters
If this doesn’t get a cricket follower excited, they might want to check their pulse.The Indian board of control might be endangering the long-term health of Test cricket, but surely no confection can ever stir the emotions and the faculties of the cricket brain as much as a Test series between two nations at the summit of their form. Since its post-apartheid readmission in 1991-92, South Africa has beaten Australia twice here, but never, in six attempts, on its own soil.
If Australian cricketers have a home away from home, it has been South Africa. Coming off an Ashes summer that still feels like a dream, the Australians are primed to test themselves against the world’s best team at Centurion, Port Elizabeth and Cape Town. It will turn on any given performance at any given time by any player, but there are some prospective clashes to light the imagination.
MITCHELL JOHNSON v GRAEME SMITH
Smith will be targeted in the way Australia recently decapitated another left-handed opener-captain. Unlike Alastair Cook, Smith starts the series with a history of troubles against Johnson. First, it was a broken hand in Australia in 2008-09. A few weeks later, in Johannesburg, it took Johnson two balls to have Smith caught behind. Johnson, who had scored 96 not out in the first innings, went on to take eight wickets and lead Australia to a 162-run win. Next Test match, in Durban, Smith lasted just three balls before Johnson broke his finger. Then Johnson sent Jacques Kallis to hospital with a split jaw. Smith played no further part in the series. Johnson had no comparable effect in South Africa in 2011, when he played with a foot injury, and was just regaining form when he played South Africa in the Perth Test match in 2012-13. There is no doubt that Johnson in 2014 has rediscovered the pace that terrorised Smith in 2009. There is no doubt about which batsman he will be going after first. If the initial assault doesn’t work, expect some round-the-wicket bowling, such as was used on England’s Michael Carberry.
DALE STEYN v MICHAEL CLARKE
As a captain, Clarke carries an even greater responsibility than Smith, because Clarke is also his team’s best batsman. Clarke mastered the South Africans in Australia two summers ago, with two double-centuries, and in Cape Town in 2011 his first-innings 151 was arguably the best of his career. But Clarke, much like his predecessor Steve Waugh, seldom feels secure in his batting form, and even though he made two centuries in the Ashes series, a scarcity of runs in the last three Test matches and the one-day internationals will have him tinkering night and day to improve his output. All the South African bowlers will target him, but Steyn will take the lead. Steyn only bowled one devastating spell in Australia last summer, but it won the series in Perth. He has dismissed Clarke three times in South Africa, bowling him twice. In fact, Clarke has been bowled five times in nine Test dismissals in South Africa, well above his career trend. The technical battle will be fascinating as Clarke moves to tighten his defence and Steyn tries to counter him.
VERNON PHILANDER v RYAN HARRIS
The similarities between the world’s No.1 and No.3 bowlers are many. Both are late bloomers, both combine a muscular build with a lithe action, and both rely on guile and lateral movement at good pace. Harris is slightly faster and has a better bouncer, and has a superior record in batting-friendly conditions. But where the pitch and atmosphere are conducive to seam and swing, Philander is, in Mike Hussey’s words, ”an absolute nightmare”. In fact, facing Harris and Philander will be torture for the batsmen, and whichever line-up can better nullify these masters of movement will have won half the battle.
MORNE MORKEL v CHRIS ROGERS and DAVID WARNER
If the Australian opening batsmen survive Steyn and Philander, they have to deal with South Africa’s most potent bowler to left-handers. With his high delivery and awkward angles, Morkel is a handful, especially from around the wicket, cramping left-handed batsmen and straightening the ball off the seam. The three batsmen Morkel has dismissed most in his Test career – Andrew Strauss, Hussey and Cook – are all left-handers. Sixty-six of his 183 victims have been southpaws. Morkel will be bowling to specific plans to the lefties, ensuring no relent after Steyn and Philander take a rest.
BRAD HADDIN v A.B. DE VILLIERS
If ever wicketkeepers held the keys to their teams’ success, it is in this series. There are two ways of looking at Haddin’s superlative performance against England. One is that he finally realised his true potential as a batsman. The other is that such a run of form cannot last. Certainly Australia would be foolish to depend on him continuing to make good on top-order collapses, but on the other hand, Steve Waugh and others have long said that Haddin is good enough to be picked in Test cricket as a specialist batsman. The acme of this type is, of course, de Villiers. His Test batting average lingered in the 30s until Mark Boucher’s retirement. Since taking on the wicketkeeping duties, de Villiers’ average has risen to nearly 52 and he is the ICC’s top-ranked Test batsman. Against Australia at home, he averaged 60 in the past two series. Coming in behind Jacques Kallis has been a career-long benefit. This time, Australia will be seeking to expose him sooner.
HASHIM AMLA v NATHAN LYON
Amla had a quiet series against India recently, an ominous sign because the remarkable consistency of his career has seen lean spells invariably followed by heavy scoring. His team’s best player of spin bowling, Amla will seek to dominate Lyon, who became an essential cog in Australia’s bowling plans during the two Ashes series. In 2009 and 2011, Amla was never dismissed by an Australian spinner. After the clash of testosterone between the Warners, Watsons and Smiths and the quick bowlers, it will be a subtle joy to watch Amla and Lyon, two gentler souls, try to unpick each other.
AUSTRALIA’S KEY MAN – SHANE WATSON
Heard that before? If Watson has a good series with the bat – not just an occasional second-innings biff, but a series of big scores in the first dig – Australia will win. He will most likely bat at three, but even in the middle order Watson has the ability to set the course of Test matches. Perhaps more than Warner and Clarke, a dominant Watson can intimidate and suck the life out of opposition teams (while a moody, disappointed Watson can suck the life out of his own … If Watson can realise his potential as a batsman, the Australians will feel as impregnable as the Proteas felt behind Kallis. Speaking of the missing Kallis, Watson’s bowling as the fourth seamer gives Australia a comparative advantage. On paper, that is.
SOUTH AFRICA’S KEY MAN – PHILANDER
From Steyn and Morkel, we know what to expect: high-quality, accurate fast bowling in all conditions. Philander under-performed in Australia in 2012-13, when, much like James Anderson this summer, he couldn’t get the ball to move sideways and took just four wickets at 50 runs apiece. On home soil, Philander is a different proposition. In 10 home Test matches, he has taken 62 wickets at 15.24. Philander can win the series for South Africa in a couple of spells. He has taken five wickets in an innings nine times in his 20 Test matches. If he misfires, or is tamed by the batsmen, the balance will swing just as decisively the other way.