South Africa vs Australia Test Series Preview

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Nick Hancock, the brains behind the excellent new cricket panel show The Sledge, shares his weird and wonderful thoughts on the South Africa vs Australia test series which commences later today.

THE DEVIL’S IN THE PREAMBLE

Australian test cricket is in a bit of a spin. Not a terminal decline, mind you – more of a ‘loop-the-loop.’ The question begging to be answered: just how ARE we performing? Should we be worried about our test cricketers, or hopeful about our future prospects? After all, what do those results about Sri Lanka tell us about our test team? Wasn’t one of those pitches DOCTORED?*

Actually, ‘spin’ may not be the correct term; it’s more like a vinyl, being scratched by a DJ:

In 2009, we lost the Ashes, but then we played pretty well in the series after – “so nothing’s wrong, everybody! Everything’s fine!”

In 2010/2011, we got thumped in the Ashes – “but we’ve played pretty well since then! Rumors of our demise have been emphatically overstated – we’re okay!”

Now, Australia has held on to tie the 20Twenty hit outs one-all, and took home the silverware in the ODI series two-one. And here we are, on the cusp of test match battle with our old enemies, those South Africans, those powerhouses of world cricket.

And I can say that without sarcasm, or slight, or slyly poking my tongue into my cheek; the South Africans, throughout the 2000s and, indeed, the 1999 World Cup, have been perhaps Australia’s most worthy opponents. And before someone shushes me, condescendingly, for my remark made in folly (“How dare you overlook MS Dhoni’s Team India!”/”England Are The World Number One Test Nation And Don’t You Forget It!”), you should look into my sepia-soaked memory banks to recall games that pitted Ponting against Ntini, and Gilchrist against Steyn, and Kallis, and Gibbs, and Smith versus Australia’s entire bowling attack.

There was a period of years when games between these two nations never seemed to to end with a clear victor – ties! Last-wicket wins! Test matches that see-sawed over five whole days! To be a cricket nerd growing up during that golden age was like being a chocolate fan given the keys to the Wonka kingdom.

South African cricketers are cut from the same cloth as their Australian counterparts: aggressive and domineering when they win. To see them play cricket was like seeing two bulls headbutt one-another to see which would blink first. And this comes from a guy who gets Graeme Smith and Ricky Ponting confused; they’re both chiseled, manly men who have single-handedly won test matches for the countries and managed to look DISGUSTED WITH THEMSELVES whilst doing it.

Seriously. The day Smith cracks a smile will be the day I head to my bomb shelter. And whilst Punter has been known to smile, I always faintly assume it’s a ruse, like he’s doing it to remind everyone that “he’s human”, and not an anger-filled run-plundering cyborg.

As you can see, contests between the Aussies and the Proteas are pretty close to my heart. And so here we are, in the tail end of 2011, watching Australia tour South Africa, trading blows without neither ever REALLY gaining the upper hand. It’s cricket at it’s absolute best. In fitting circumstance, it all culminates in a…

Two-test series.

Ugh. That’d be right.**

TALKING POINTS

You spin me right round, baby – and, like a record on repeat, here we are: Philip Hughes opening the batting for Australia, fresh off heaps of runs in the Aussie first class scene, and Mitchell Johnson tearing in as an exciting left-arm pace bowler. It’s hard not to see a naval analogy; will Mitchell Johnson again lose his radar? Will the Proteas sink Philip Hughes’ battleship? Let fly the dogs of war…

With the emergence of ‘exciting young spinner’*** Imran Tahir, many believed the sun had finally set on South African spinner Paul Harris’ test career. He doesn’t seem to fazed by it, though, even calling for them to play in the same team. Just maybe, playing two spinners could ease the bowling workload on the aging Jacques Kallis; and, after all, they complement one-another:  Harris is a container whilst Tahir is more attacking. This same contrast is evident in Australia’s spinners, Nathan Lyon and Michael Beer: one is attacking and one is containing, but we’ve forgotten which is which.

The average age of the fourteen selected South Africans is a hair under thirty. Wow! The average of the Australian fifteen is just under 28. What can we gleam from these statistics? Mostly that the Aussie team is lucky to have Pat Cummins at just eighteen. He’s pretty much an outlier.

CricInfo has reported that South Africa’s Graeme Smith, Jacques Kallis, AB de Villiers, Dale Steyn and Mark Boucher have not played a first class match since their New Years test against India… at the start of 2011. Their ten-month layoff from test cricket directly contrasts the schedule of the Australians, whom have finished a three-test tour of Sri Lanka and then played Sheffield Shield cricket. Mind you, I highly doubt you’d drop either Kallis or Steyn even if they’d had TWO YEARS off. Those two would take some replacing.

Meanwhile, Michael Clarke hasn’t lost a series, limited overs or test match, since he took over as captain seven months ago. And if that doesn’t set the stage for this biblical two-test encounter, I don’t know what will.

* The day that the ICC stops looking disapprovingly towards pitches that promote results is the day I (might) start taking them seriously.

** It’s like a parent/child compromise: “No, Timmy, you can’t have ice-cream for desert – but if you behave, I’ll give you an extra piece of fruit!” And in that analogy, a three-match test series is the ice-cream, and the extra piece of fruit is the limited overs matches.

*** This phrase may not invoke in South Africa the narcissistic response it gets in Australia.

More South Africa vs Australia Test Series Preview….

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