The gulf between the number one and two teams in the cricket test playing world had, at one point in time, being the same as between the second and probably the sixth. Australia would barely care for reputations, rankings or any such jamboree, and had enough firepower to decimate most opponents with the ease with which an Ekta Kapoor churns out some of her soaps. South Africa, on the other hand have always threatened to be the challengers, but had been found wanting against the likes of Shane Warne, Glen McGrath and even Stuart MacGill amongst others. In fact, such had been the Aussie dominance in this number one-two rivalry, that the Proteas have yet to win a series against the world champions since their return to international cricket, and the head-to-head during the same period stands at 15-4!
Things may just be a little different this time. Under Graeme Smith, South Africa have reached Down Under, and this time it is to do more than just make up the numbers as their previous record suggests. In fact, if some experts are to be believed, this may just be South Africa’s best chance to put the series in their pockets against the world champions. And the reasons are manifold.
For starters, South Africa has been having the time of their lives. Yet to lose a series in their nine previous attempts, dating as far back as the last couple of years, this would the acid test of them all. It would be made a trifle easier by the fact that South Africa look to be much more well-balanced than they probably have ever been. This is due to a couple of factors; one, there is a spinner who could, if not run through the line-up, be at least expected to hold an end up. In any case, one gets the sense that the Aussies may want to target Paul Harris, because he seems to be one of the weak links in the bowling attack. And this is where he may end up nibbling a wicket here or there. >
Secondly, in Dale Steyn, Makhaya Ntini and the Morkel brothers should not only relish the Australian conditions, but also bring about a kind of a variety that would be necessary. On the other hand, most of the South African batsmen have appeared to have settled down in the team as easily as a duck taking to water. In fact, the only player who would be under some kind of a scrutiny would be their most experienced batsman, Jacques Kallis, who has had a horrid 2008, averaging less than 30 runs per inning, and would like to rectify the same. >
And as if to acknowledge that Ricky Ponting has the cognizance of this fact, the Aussie skipper made a telling comment; something that rarely befits a baggy-green holder, let alone the Aussie cricket captain. Talking to the media about being the number one team in the world, Ponting said, “If South Africa beat us 3-0 I don’t know if that gives them enough points to get over us. But if they won the series 1-0 or 2-1, I don’t think that would mean that they deserve to take over that mantle (of number one).” It must be said that it has been quite a while since I heard such a negative comment emanating from the Aussie stable; a far cry from the almost warlike cry of Glen McGrath, ‘we-will-win-it-5-0’. >
Talking of war-cries and the verbal jousts, two very surprising protagonists have emerged from the opposing camps. Coach Tim Nielsen, in an attempt to fill in the void that the likes of avid-chatters, Shane Warne and Glen McGrath’s absence has created, was the first to fire the salvo when he accused his opponents of talking without any underlying basis. His adversary, Micky Arthur, in turn, hasn’t really accepted the bait. In fact, he expressed his shock at this, pointing towards the songs of praise that he had sung for the Aussies, on landing down under, making it a strange situation of sorts. With around ten days to go, all the niceness would look to melt away, as the teams would look to score as many brownies as possible before they get down to the real business.
The Aussies would want their top-order to fire; especially the likes of Mathew Hayden and Ricky Ponting. Hayden looks to be a man who hasn’t rediscovered his run-making prowess yet, after his return from injury, while Ponting’s wrist seems to be his proverbial Achilles Heel. The bowling looked to have got back its sheen with a couple of good performances by Brett Lee, and Stuart Clark getting back to full fitness. With Mitchell Johnson assuming the dual role of stock and shock bowlers at different times during an inning, the support from Lee and Clark would be crucial. Jason Krezja may have taken 12 on debut, but hasn’t played since, because of an injury, and it has been reported that he has failed a fitness test for his state side Tasmania. This could mean that Nathan Hauritz could get another look-in, after the likes of Cameron White, Bryce McGain and Beau Casson have been over-looked.
Both the teams have just come off 2-0 whitewashes, but the opponents have barely been worthwhile mentioning. The Proteas beat the Bangladeshi side, who have won only one of their almost sixty tests they have played in, where as a woefully ordinary looking Kiwi side was rolled over by the Aussies at Gabba and Adelaide. The first test match at WACA in Perth should throw up an interesting challenge for the curator, as to the kind of pitch he dishes out for the same. As reports have had it, the pitch at Perth has seemed to have got a lot quicker than some of the previous ones, and looks to have regained some of the bounce. There have been four Sheffield Shield first class matches that have been played so far in the 2008-09, and all four have seen a result within the stipulated four days of playing time. The first inning scores average around 202, while three of these four matches have been won by teams batting second. With the pace arsenal that both teams have in their kitty, things could interesting at the toss, especially given the fact that fielding first comes with a caveat that if the things did not go too well for the bowlers at the start, the things get better for the batsmen, and it does turn out to be a belter of a pitch. >
This may set the trend for the series.