Australia out for revenge against confident Proteas
PERTH (Reuters) - In an era of test cricket where home advantage is proving all but decisive, Australia's three-match series against South Africa offers the rare prospect of a genuinely even contest.
The series starts on Thursday in Perth, where South Africa ruined Ricky Ponting's farewell with a big win to clinch the 2012 series - the last Australia lost on home soil.
On the road, however, Australia, like most other top nations, have had plenty of experience of losing series in recent years and not just in the longest form of the game.
While the 3-0 drubbing in Sri Lanka in September that lost them the number one test ranking just reinforced the notion that Australia's batsmen cannot play spin very well, the recent 5-0 ODI whitewash in South Africa was an historic humiliation.
Local hopes of revenge rest on the return of rested frontline pace bowlers Josh Hazlewood and Mitchell Starc, even if the latter is not yet firing on all cylinders after suffering a nasty gash to his leg in training last month.
Australia's batting rarely fails to fire on home soil and, even in a side rebuilding after a string of retirements, runs can be expected right through the order from pugnacious opener David Warner to obdurate tailender Nathan Lyon.
South Africa, in the absence of the injured AB de Villiers, will be more reliant on Hashim Amla and Faf du Plessis but they have quality in the area history suggests is key for tourists in Australia - pace bowling.
Dale Steyn spearheads a five-strong unit featuring the experience of Vernan Philander and Morne Morkel, the enthusiasm of Kyle Abbott, and the raw pace of 21-year-old Kagiso Rabada, South Africa's cricketer of the year.
'PLAY THE AUSTRALIAN WAY'
Steyn played on the successful tours of 2008 and 2012 and believes the Proteas have arrived without the inferiority complex that past tourists have brought to Australia.
"I think the guys who are on their first test tour of Australia are coming here with a good feeling because the other guys who have come here before have done well," the 33-year-old said.
"It's not that feeling where in the past when we came here we had our tails between our legs, we are coming here with good history. The boys are comfortable and ready to go."
South Africa's success in Australia is often put down to their comfort on the hard local tracks, which can be similar to those at home, but they could face some unfamiliar conditions this year.
The WACA served up a wicket without its notorious pace and bounce last year, Hobart has often offered up greentops, while last year's first day-night test at Adelaide Oval was something of a lottery for Australian and New Zealand batsmen alike.
What will be more familiar, even under the South Australian lights, is the uncompromising nature of the home crowds and the opposition.
"We're going to play the Australian way," Lyon said on Tuesday. "We're going to compete hard. We're not going to roll over.
"If one of our players is getting a hard time, we're going to stick up for him. We know where the line is. We headbutt it, but we don't go over it."
(Writing by Nick Mulvenney in Sydney, editing by Peter Rutherford)