South Africa vs Australia 2018: Fear of fatigue threatens both sides in lengthy series
“It was a bit of a mental breakdown from a few of us,” said Australia's stand-in captain David Warner ahead of the final of the just-concluded T20I tri-series.
Two days later, Australia beat co-hosts New Zealand in the title decider; and just hours after, Warner and coach Darren Lehmann flew over to South Africa for their gruelling tour comprising four Tests. No other member of the Test set-up was present for company in the plane.
To go back to the quote, here's presenting the background of Warner's words: since August 2017, Australia have engaged in 7 Tests, 10 ODIs and 8 T20 internationals. Just eight days after completing the last of those commitments, an opposition featuring names like AB de Villiers, Hashim Amla, Faf du Plessis, Morne Morkel, Vernon Philander and Kagiso Rabada will be waiting for them in the park.
But that is not to say that these legs will be fresh themselves. To trace South Africa's own cricketing activities since September 2017, they have played 6 Tests, 9 ODIs and 5 T20Is – in total, just five international matches fewer than Australia in a month less. Merely five days after the final T20I against India, they will start their fourth home series of the season, though one of them included only a single Test which lasted barely two days. Aside from that, three T20s inside four days for the World XI in Pakistan included the likes of Amla, du Plessis and Morkel.
Thus, both teams, citing the crucial Test series against the other, rested key players for their respective T20 internationals: all of Steven Smith, Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood, Pat Cummins and newly recalled wicket-keeper Tim Paine were missing from the tri-series; on the other hand, none of de Villiers, du Plessis, Amla, Morkel, Rabada and even Aiden Markram played a part in the three T20I matches against India.
With the hectic schedule at the back of his mind, Warner said his home board was responsible to ensure he and his teammates remained fresh. “If you look at the Twenty20 team at the moment, the way these guys have come out of the Big Bash fresh, they’re just killing it. It’s sort of set the example that if we come around to the same situation again with a big Ashes series, do we look at certain things? And that’s up to Cricket Australia to look at and judge,” the 31-year-old stated.
While Warner was leading Australia in the T20 tri-series final, an Australian XI began its only practice match of the South Africa tour just a day after, thus making Warner the only member of the visiting party not to have had genuine practice before the Tests. Just last year, while a second string T20 side was playing Sri Lanka at home, the following day, an entirely different Test team took on India miles away in Pune – a repeat telecast fell short just by a handful of days this time.
On the other hand, South Africa will have their own excuse of stuffing cricket matches so tightly. With relations between their former CEO Haroon Lorgat and the BCCI not at its best, a proposed Boxing Day Test against India eventually saw Zimbabwe feature instead; as a result, India landed late for a long tour of 3 Tests, 6 ODIs and 3 T20Is, thus pushing back their itinerary until the dying moments of the Australia series.
As if that was not enough, the hosts have as many as three frontline players – du Plessis, de Villiers and Quinton de Kock – coming off injuries, while reserve batsman Temba Bavuma and Dale Steyn are still recuperating – all this with South Africa yet to beat Australia in a Test series at home since readmission.
South Africa must be already thanking the heavens after the scheduled Global T20 league was postponed until at least the next home season following CSA's inability to secure television rights for the event. Had that gone ahead as originally planned, all of their Test cricketers would have carried a massive workload even before India arrived in January.
For Australia, Starc, who like his new ball partner Hazlewood is yet to play a Test in South Africa, has just healed his bruised heel. Moreover, the form of newcomer Cameron Bancroft remains a concern after he managed only 179 runs in eight innings with only one half-century in the Ashes. Bancroft found James Anderson and Stuart Broad a tough challenge despite playing at home – though South African pitches are barely different in nature – and Philander and his colleagues will be licking their lips at a relatively easy opening at the top of the order.
But ahead of the first four-match Test series between the sides, there was at least some positivity from the visiting captain Smith. "I think a week or two actually just does a world of good to anyone and I know that when we landed here, Starcy, for instance, was so happy the way the ball was coming out. He was swinging it and you could just see on their faces that they were a bit more refreshed and just ready to go. Everyone is excited about this series, it's going to be a cracker,” sounded a positive Smith.
Indeed, a thrilling contest awaits the fans from either side. But the fear of fatigue setting in has started haunting Smith even before the series has commenced. "No doubt throughout the series guys are going to have some sort of fatigue set in. It has been a long summer and every Test back home went five days and things like that, but in the end you're playing for your country and you find ways to get yourself up,” he said.
And hopefully, a “mental breakdown” does not haunt Warner while he aims to repeat his emphatic performance from the previous tour in 2014, where he amassed 543 runs at 90.50 at a threatening strike rate of 86.74.