THE ASHES have been comfortably regained but if you thought that was the biggest challenge Steve Smith and the Australian team will face this year, think again, writes former Test fast bowler IAN CALLEN:
WITH THE upcoming Test series in South Africa fast approaching, our Australian cricketers cannot afford to be complacent. Yes, it was a comprehensive Ashes victory but against a poorly prepared English team led by an inexperienced Joe Root who seemed to be without much support.
However, this next challenge is set to be totally different, a fiercely brutal contest which is already capturing the interest of cricket lovers the world over more than a month in advance.
From the first ball of the first match neither side is likely to crack, not as early as England did anyway!
For Steve Smith and his men the focus must be on preparation and planning for what is going to be a significantly more difficult task against a much better team, in a foreign land. And the South Africans are in hot form, having just thrashed the nominal No 1 Test team in the world, India.
For the current group, this will be the Australians’ greatest challenge yet!
Both attacks will boast at least three pacemen, all with the ability to propel rockets, and when the dust settles only those batsmen with technical supremacy will stand tall.
Don’t get me wrong, it won’t just be about the fast men, Nathan Lyon is arguably the best spinner in world cricket and the time has long passed when opponents could afford to under-estimate him, if they ever could. His flight, drift and gripping spin is complicated by drop and deceptive bounce. It will be interesting to see how the Proteas combat him, in particular AB de Villiers and Hashim Amla — two batsmen often left out of the conversation when talk turns to the world’s best.
de Villiers has scored 8,237 Test runs at 50.47 with more than 20 Centuries including a highest score of 278 not out, numbers that clearly demonstrate his sheer class. AB turns defence into attack with an in-your-face style that intimidates spineless bowling and when in partnership with Amla, it’s hard to find two better batsmen in Test cricket.
Amla has 29 centuries, a highest score of 311 not out and 8,590 runs at 49 that have come with an effortless style much like a surgeon calmly wielding a scalpel rather than waving a bat.
As usual, Australia will rely on Smith and David Warner. My greatest fears for them is that when it comes to technical issues, our record is poor when the ball starts moving about and goes for Smith whose form against England on home wickets is being portrayed as Bradmanesque. There isn’t much wrong with his record abroad, but South Africa will be more difficult for him than Australia was this summer.
His team-mates will be under the pump too. Make no mistake, our batting will be prodded and probed through the air and off the seam, especially by Vernon Philander (182 wickets @ 21.68).
No doubt the Proteas will be hoping a recent setback sustained by 34-year-old Dale Steyn will be overcome. In partnership he and Philander work well together, keeping shine on the ball to enhance opportunities with their stump to stump line and late movement. Together they have been rewarded with 600 Test scalps between them at a miserly 22 runs per wicket.
But the question we’re all asking ourselves, is Dale Steyn still the number one quick in the world, which he once was, and is he capable of returning from injury at the top of his game?
Having closely watched his recent efforts I would not write off this champion because he still sends them down at scorching pace high in the 140’s but he’s also cleverly changing up and down gears and is always at the batsmen. A successful return may well be the difference between the two teams.
In support will be the rejuvenated 195cm Morne Morkel who is always a dangerous proposition with pace and bounce (285 wickets @ 28.39). The third of the trio is Kagiso Rabada a 190cm, 22-year-old from the Highveld, known as “KG”. He takes full advantage of his height, bowling with sizzling pace and hitting the deck with an upright seam enabling late movement. He’s the quickest of the fast brigade and it is no wonder he captured 57 wickets last calendar year, more than any other bowler, at the impressive average of 20.28.
In reserve in case Steyn fails his quest for fitness is another giant, 6’5″ (195cm) KwaZulu Natal fast bowler Lungi Ngidi, who has just completed his first Test against India with very impressive 6/39 to complete the Proteas’ series win.
Ngidi bowls very much like Morkel, reaching speeds well into the 140’s generating lift and movement off the seam.
This four Test series will certainly be a wake-up call for Australian batting after enjoying themselves against an English pop gun attack. I doubt our batting will have confronted pace this furious since the three decades of West Indies four-pronged pace men. But this is the modern era and apparently the game has moved on and on since then which means we don’t necessarily know what to anticipate.
We have been warned that Test cricketers must meet new challenges to keep the game thriving. James Sutherland, Cricket Australia’s CEO, said as much: “Test Cricket must remain relevant and contemporary for the modern-day cricket supporters.”
This coming series should have no problem capturing and retaining public interest, so I am at a loss to understand what officials are worried about. Some sections of the commentariat have been insisting that the Ashes descended into boredom. I certainly wasn’t bored as I found the first three Tests intriguing as they ebbed and flowed.
Perhaps we can learn something from the recently approved ICC four-day Test Match at St Georges Park, Port Elizabeth, where Australia will play its second Test.
South Africa played a one-off Test against Zimbabwe, their first Test encounter with the pink ball under lights and it ended in two days, just over four sessions in fact. The overwhelmed, inexperienced and modestly talented visitors were bowled out for 68 and 121 and most of us thought that they were just not up to standard. However, in Cape Town on the famously scenic Newlands Cricket Ground, where the Kirsten brothers once practically owned real estate on the centre wicket area, India were beaten in three playing days so maybe the Zimbos weren’t so hopeless.
We do have some very poor Test Nations offering little resistance against the top teams, but such short games are not expected given normal playing conditions. Are Test players about to be confronted with the unexpected? Are officials pressuring groundsmen to experiment with the preparation of Test pitches in an attempt to make Test cricket more relevant?
Certainly the Newlands and Centurions wickets that India confronted were not expected nor prepared for. All commentators highlighted this fact, so what can the Australians expect in March and just how much influence will the ICC CEO Dave Richardson, himself a former South African Test player, have on this series?
Certainly we do not need another wicket like the turgid one presented to Melbourne cricket lovers at the MCG but curators should be able to prepare the playing surface to the traditional values of the arena.
Why change the way the Lord’s pitch has been prepared, or the Oval, or Sydney or Wanderers? Rumour has it that ECB officials were in Melbourne to investigate the feasibility of drop-in wickets for Lord’s, which would be a huge break with tradition. I will say it here, the game of Test cricket and all the traditional values and its history that has been handed down to us by its players over the years is being tampered with.
I was going to write about the possibility of Australia returning to the No 1 Test playing nation after this series. I was also going to give you an idea of what we could expect from Test grounds. But it is difficult to know what to expect now and that’s a shame.
The series starts in Durban in March and moves to Port Elizabeth, Cape Town and Johannesburg, the four most traditional venues in the country, all of them with fascinating histories.
Author: Ian Callen
IAN CALLEN is a former Victorian and Australian fast bowler, Test cap No 291.