Why South Africa vs Australia will be the most exciting Test series of the year
There could hardly be anything more mouth-watering for a cricket fan than a Test series where a four-pronged South African pace attack (Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel, Vernon Philander and Kagiso Rabada) squares off against a four-man Australian battery of fast bowlers (Josh Hazlewood, Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins and James Pattinson).
However, the cricketing gods don’t always gratify the fans. So, while Pattinson couldn’t recover from injuries in time for the series, Steyn is certain to miss the first two matches of the series and doubtful for the remaining two also.
But, there is still a lot to savour in the contest. The other three members of the Proteas pace attack are taking part with Morkel having the additional motivation for doing well due to this being his curtain call. On top of that, there is a new exciting young seamer in the form of Lungi Ngidi, who impressed everyone with his performance in the India series, to watch out for.
Australia also would not miss Pattinson much as even without him, they convincingly won the Ashes. The trio of Hazlewood, Starc and Cummins picked up 20+ wickets each in the series and all three consistently bowled at over 140 kph.
If the South African pitches are true to their nature and assist pace and bounce, this will be a spectacular show of top-class fast bowling with all the above-mentioned bowlers, with the exception of Philander, able to hit the deck hard and generate good speed.
However, the indications are that South Africans may ask for slower pitches to counteract Australia’s pace battery. This is similar to what happened in the previous Australian Test tour to South Africa in 2014 when the hosts asked for slow pitches to blunt the threat of Mitchell Johnson.
But even then, the bowlers in question have the ability to make an impact. The likes of Rabada, Ngidi, Starc and Cummins generate pace in the air whereas Morkel, with his height, could get the ball to rear up uncomfortably on any pitch.
Besides, Starc showed how devastating he could be on slow wickets by getting the ball to reverse on the tour of Sri Lanka in 2016. This skill is also possessed by the South African bowlers who can put it to good use.
On the other hand, Hazlewood and Philander have the skills to trouble batsmen in different type of conditions.
While pace has dominated all the talk going into the series, it would be a big mistake to overlook the spin options available to both sides. Aussies have in their rank one of the finest spinners of the present generation - Nathan Lyon - who also got 20+ wickets in the Ashes and has been a very consistent and dependable performer for Australia.
His opposite number in the South African ranks, if they opt to have one, would be Keshav Maharaj. The left-arm orthodox bowler may not have impressed much in the India series but he is one fine bowler who has ended Proteas’ long search for a reliable and at times, very effective spinner. He was a key member of the South African team in their series victory over Australia in 2016 and has even won matches for his side.
What is attractive about these two spinners is that they are good old-fashioned exponents of their arts and rely on classical traits of spinners like flight, drift and subtle variations of pace to outfox the batsmen. They could prove to be the dark horses in the four-match contest.
When it comes to batting, the South Africans seem to have an edge with De Villiers, Du Plessis and De Kock back in the line up to assist the veteran Amla and in-form Dean Elgar. The class of AB and Faf is well known to the Aussies and De Kock’s brilliant hundred in swing-friendly conditions of Hobart in the 2016 series would make the Kangaroos wary of him as well. Moreover, the presence of another keeper Heinrich Klaasen in the team would give further motivation to De Kock for rediscovering his form.
Elgar played an extremely courageous knock against India on the dicey Wanderers wicket in the last innings of the India series and has been one of the main run-getters for his team in the recent past. His opening partner Aiden Markram looks like a solid batsman but is yet to put away all doubts about his abilities.
Australia, though, have the best Test batsman in the world leading them at the moment. Steve Smith’s prolificity and consistency are fast bringing him closer to the title of a ‘legend’. What should worry the Proteas is his statement that he still doesn’t feel like hitting the ball as well as he could. If he does, it’s hard to imagine what proportions his run-making would acquire.
David Warner is another dangerous player and especially so in South Africa. He, and not Steve Smith, was in Bradmanesque form on his team’s last tour to the country. Prior to his success in Bangladesh, the only country outside Australia where Warner seemed comfortable was South Africa. Hence, he could pose an equally big threat as Smith to the hosts.
But how would the rest of the Australian batting order cope with the Protean pace attack is uncertain. The Marsh brothers were in terrific form in the Ashes and Shaun has one good memory of having scored a hundred in the 2014 series. The challenge posed by the South African fast bowlers, however, would be far bigger than that presented by the English bowlers. Besides, the elder Marsh had to be dropped after his hundred in the previous series in South Africa due to single-digit scores in the next three knocks.
Another x-factor would be Usman Khwaja. His performances in Australia have been pretty good and he scored a wonderful hundred against the same opponent in the day-night Adelaide Test of 2016. But he is yet to prove himself outside the home country and though conditions in South African could be very similar to those at home, if the hosts prepare slow wickets, then Khwaja’s vulnerability against spinners may come into play.
In spite of being the only opener in the squad, Cameron Bancroft will be under a lot of pressure as he had a lean series against England and it was only the faith and leniency of selectors that got him into the team.
Wicket-keeper Tim Paine is in a completely different position. Picked primarily for his better wicket-keeping skills compared to other contenders like Matthew Wade, Paine also scored very useful runs in the Ashes and is a more than capable batsman.
Peter Handscomb, who made his debut in the Adelaide Test against the same team has been retained in the squad but is likely to stay out of the playing 11 for the first Test. However, if a spot opens up, he would get another opportunity to prove himself after the disappointment of the last series.
All in all, this is still, possibly, the most exciting series of the year in prospect and has added relevance because the hosts, while having beaten Australia in their backyard in their last three tours down under, are yet to register a home series victory over them since their re-admission into international cricket.
Add to that the great history of encounters between these two teams and it seems we are set for another great contest. Time to sit back and enjoy.