Australia vs South Africa 2016: David Warner - the X-factor for Australia?
At about this time last year, Australia's David Warner was in the middle of a terrific run of form in Test cricket against his country's neighbours, New Zealand. After plundering twin hundreds in the Brisbane Test, he went on to notch up a personal best of 253 in just 286 balls at the WACA, one of his favourite pitches.
He is Australia's own pocket-sized rocket. Don't judge him by his height though; the short guy can pack a punch. His muscles generate a truckload of power, which is a critical part of his stroke-making.
Warner has adapted to Test cricket like fish to water. Labelled as a T20 batsman, the transformation to Test cricket was pretty smooth. He has climbed the hard yards and now stands, along with Steven Smith, as one of the pillars of Australia's Test line-up.
The last one year
Ever since the terrific series against the Kiwis at home in November 2015, Warner has had a great time with the willow in Tests. In 11 Tests, he has averaged 56.66, much higher than his overall average of 48.63. He has made a career-best score of 253 and scored a total of four hundreds and two fifties.
The Australian has been phenomenal at the top of the order and has stood out even in difficult conditions in Sri Lanka with his attacking mindset against the tweakers.
Warner has basically set the tone for the likes of Smith and Voges to build on. He has this unique ability to play the patience game in Tests while ensuring the odd boundary ball is put away.
2014 might have been the breakthrough year in Warner's Test career, where he scored 1,136 runs with six hundreds at an average above 60. But 2015-16 has defined his maturity as a cricketer. He has grown from being a dashing carefree opener to an attacking but responsible team player.
The South African angle
Ever since he smashed an 89 on debut in a T20 against the South Africans, Warner has taken a special liking to them. In 36 matches across formats against the Rainbow Nation, Warner has notched up seven hundreds and averages 46.31. His Test record is even more phenomenal against them – in six Tests against South Africa, he has four centuries and two half-centuries and averages 68.09.
In his last Test match against South Africa back in March 2014, Warner scored twin hundreds in Cape Town against an attack comprising Steyn, Morkel, Philander and Abbott. A brilliant 135 in the first innings was followed up by a near run-a-ball 145. That it was the series decider shows the kind of big match temperament Warner has.
In fact, that entire series belonged to Warner. His scores in the series read 12, 115, 70, 66, 135, 145.
Yet another factor the Proteas will be wary of is his record in Australia. Warner has an average of 60.56 in Tests in Australia and has scored 12 of his 16 hundreds at home. Interestingly, three of the remaining four hundreds have come in South Africa. The signs certainly point to a specific liking towards the South African bowling attack.
In 2016 alone, Warner has played 10 matches across formats against the Proteas, scoring 626 runs at an average of 62.60 with three centuries. The 236-ball 173 in the last ODI of the recently concluded five-match series, albeit in a losing cause, would still be fresh in the memories of the South African bowlers.
One reason that Warner enjoys the Proteas pace attack could be the bounce their bowlers generate. Morkel and Steyn generate the kind of height on the ball that Warner relishes. Add to that the medium pace of Philander, which is again fodder for Warner.
His overall record suggests that he is particularly dangerous on bouncy wickets and conditions where the ball comes on to the bat. In Perth and Hobart, venues for the first two Test matches, Warner has pitches tailor-made to his liking. The third Test is at Adelaide where the pitch may misbehave under lights with late swing, but again the conditions are pretty much similar to that in Hobart. South Africa wouldn't have forgotten his run-a-ball 119 in 2012 at Adelaide.
There is little the bowlers can do when Warner starts firing on all cylinders. The Proteas have historically shown a tendency to go into a shell when attacked. The inability to switch between plans when on the attack has been a major drawback of all South African teams. That could be one of the reasons someone like Warner has relished their attack.
If the Proteas bowlers do not have back-up plans ready, Warner is going to make them pay. His ability to attack his way out of any situation makes him a really dangerous customer in this part of the world, where bounce is the major weapon.
One minor fault, and Warner will be there to capitalise on it and take the series away from the Proteas with his breathtaking strokes.