There was a time when the Ashes series between England and Australia was the marquee event in international cricket. Then the West Indies were the cynosure and there was worldwide interest wherever they played a Test match or an ODI. Now one supposes a match-up between Australia and South Africa is the one contest the cricket connoisseur looks forward to.
It’s not just because the two are arguably the best teams in world cricket at the moment. Contests between the two are generally marked by fierce competition, high standards and not unusually the sparks fly. Some of the finest players in the contemporary game – including a couple of all time greats – are on either side and given the fact that both Australia and South Africa are evenly matched, it is not uncommon to see the result of a Test series go down to the wire. The record over the last two decades since South Africa’s readmission to international cricket underlines this.
One can safely predict that the latest series that starts at Brisbane on Friday is going to be along similar lines. A glance at the list of the two squads is enough to whet the appetite of the genuine cricket fan. The build-up has been terrific and there is very little chance of the fare fizzling out into a lop-sided contest marked by mediocre cricket – not when we are talking about the No 3 squad challenging the No 1 team. And there is a big incentive too. South Africa has only to draw the series to remain at the top while an Aussie victory will see them regain the No 1 spot.
It would be tempting to put Australia as underdogs. For one thing, they are rated two places below the top ranked South Africans. Secondly, for the Brisbane Test at least, they will be without Shane Watson who is the in-form player, a cricketer whose ubiquitous qualities make him invaluable. But Australia has always displayed resilience in abundance.
And if South Africa are keen to hold on to their top slot, the Aussies have made it clear that they want to climb back to the No 1 spot. There is little doubt that under captain Michael Clarke and coach Micky Arthur they are playing some pretty good cricket and the manner in which they blanked India 4-0 a year ago underlines the fact that they are on the way up.
South Africa however are much tougher opponents and Australia will have to play to their potential and perhaps even beyond if they hope to get the better of the visitors. The South Africans have the best pace bowling line-up in the game today. In Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander and Mornie Morkel, they have a trio that can scythe through any batting order – even the strong Aussie line-up.
Steyn, the finest pace bowler in the contemporary game, served enough evidence that he is at the peak of his powers during the warm up game against Australia A at Sydney. The batting manned by the likes of skipper Graeme Smith, Hashim Amla, Jacques Kallies, AB de Villiers, JP Duminy, Alviro Petersen and Jacques Rudolph is at least as strong as the bowling.
Granted that South Africa don’t have much to offer by way of a spin department but the attack is so dependant on pace that spin is likely to play only a minor role.
And what does Australia have in the face of such awesome opposition? For starters, their bowling however good it is may lack the dynamic qualities of the South African trio. Still, in the likes of Ben Hilfenhaus, Peter Siddle, Mitchell Starc and James Pattinson they have a quartet of pace bowlers who can’t be taken lightly - even by the formidable South African batting line-up.
The spin force will be handled by Nathan Lyon though Dennis Lillee for one has talked about taking on the South Africans with an all pace attack. The batting however strong looks a little vulnerable in the absence of Watson and much would depend on the start that the explosive David Warner gives them backed by the high quality batting of Ricky Ponting, Michael Hussey and skipper Clarke.
Rob Quiney is a bit of an unknown quantity getting his chance only because of Watson’s injury while at the top of the order Ed Cowan averages under 30 after playing seven Tests – not exactly the best credentials for taking on Steyn and company. Mathew Wade who has just about edged out Brad Haddin for the stumper’s slot has played just three Tests and considering all this it becomes crystal clear that there is an over-dependence on the experienced trio of Ponting, Hussey and Clarke.
The stage is then set for should be an enthralling series. If it could be as pulsating as the two Test series in South Africa about a year ago which saw fortunes fluctuating wildly and ending 1-1 with much drama and excitement thrown in, cricket fans would be content.