HAVING just come off a 5-0 win over England in the Ashes series Down Under, Australia must be on a high. But, no matter the margin of victory, there are several serious issues to be considered in the run-up to the tour of South Africa that begins in February.
There have been writers who have started comparing the Australian pace attack — only one man has genuine pace — to the West Indies attacks of the 1980s. This is a fanciful comparison and if anyone among those who are involved in selection swallow this myth, then they will be stripped of the illusion in South Africa. While Mitchell Johnson bowled fast and with hostility for most of the series, the other two pacemen, Ryan Harris and Peter Siddle, are medium-pacers who looked very good against a team that was itself suffering under some big illusions.
When England defeated Australia 3-0 in England in 2013, it began to believe that it was that much superior to Australia. In truth, the actual series outcome should have been 3-2. In the third Test, where much of the final day was lost to rain, England was 3 for 37, chasing 332 for a win. Only 20.3 overs were possible on the final day and it is highly likely that Australia would have won this Test. That would have made the margin 2-1 in favour of England at that stage and could well have meant a different outcome after the next two Tests were played.
Despite losing the fourth Test, Australia came out strongly in the final Test, making 9-492 declared, and gaining a 115-run lead on the first innings. But then the fourth day was washed out and though England was set a sporting target of 227, bad light ensured that the last four overs were not bowled. While an England victory seemed to be on the cards, that was because of Michael Clarke’s sporting declaration. Had day four been played, Australia would have been in the better position to win.
Hence, England came to Australia in the belief that things would work out the same way as they had back home. And they probably would have, given that Australia was reduced to 6-132 in the first innings of the first Test. But then Brad Haddin staged the first of many rescue acts, this one in association with Johnson, and the advantage slipped away. England was then hit by Johnson, literally as well, and it all began to go pear-shaped.
In practically every Test, England had the upper hand initially only to end up being unable to deliver the killer blow. Even in the final Test, Australia was reduced to five for 97 before Steve Smith and Haddin took their team to a respectable 326. England was unable to deliver the killer blow at any time in the series – in Adelaide, Australia was 4-174 before escaping to make 570; in Perth, Australia was 5-143 and made 385; in Melbourne, Australia was 9-164 and even after making 204, trailed in the first innings by 51 runs. But England could only muster 179 in their second effort at the MCG and Australia won with ease.
And so back to the tour that lies ahead. South Africa have three fast bowlers, all of whom are world class. Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander are all tough customers and each is a handful to handle. There will be no let-up for Australia. And the South Africans will be using a ball that suits them better than the Australians; in Australia, England found it difficult to get the the Kookaburra balls to swing as they do with the Duke balls in England.
The South African batting is also a different kettle of fish compared to England: from the captain Graeme Smith downwards, the top six are all very good. Jacques Kallis may have gone, but there are more than enough good young batsmen who will be able to fill that hole.
The three Tests that will be played consecutively during this series; the last time Australia visited, there were two, and each side won one. In the return series in Australia, South Africa won one and two were drawn. In the ICC rankings, South Africa is number one and Australia number three; there is a big difference of 22 ranking points.
South Africa is a tough place for any team to tour; rarely have the Proteas been beaten in their own den. Australia will have to strain every sinew if it is to even end up all-square after the series.