Sport

Reality lost on Aussies

Neil Manthorp

There has never been a rival for prestige of the Ashes as far as Australian and England fans are concerned, although several have challenged for it.

Morne Morkel. (Getty Images)

The West Indies were the best team in the world for a decade and a half and went unbeaten against Australia between 1980 and 1995, at which point the handing over of the Sir Frank Worrell Trophy – and world supremacy – in the Caribbean captivated Australian audiences like never before.

It was a changing of the guard that has never been reversed. And when the West Indians returned to Australian shores to attempt a re-clamation of their honour, reputation and trophy, Aussie fans placed as high a value on their tickets as they did against the old enemy. Almost.

India's recent 4-0 thrashing in Australia drew heavily at the gate initially, but one-sided bull fights are more for Spanish or Mexican audiences and interest waned quickly.

The first Test between Australia and South Africa at Brisbane's "Gabba", starting on Friday, is threatening to overshadow them all. Ticket sales were soaring in the days before the start as the city revelled in its inadvertent promotion from a "secondary" venue to main attraction following the decision of the previous Cricket South Africa ruling regime not to play Boxing Day and New Year Tests in Melbourne and Sydney.

With home expectation so high, tension was evident in the Australian camp in the build-up to match day. Coach Mickey Arthur said vice-captain Shane Watson's place in the second Test was "assured" if he recovered from the calf injury that kept him out at Brisbane. But two days before the game, captain Michael Clarke said his deputy's place was "far from guaranteed". Old animosities like theirs are traditionally shelved in the build-up to such an important game.

But Clarke has made himself the victim of his own success by having exceeded hopes, let alone expectations, by remaining unbeaten in his first five series as captain. Far from taking the "easy" route by allowing the number one Proteas to be hyped as favourites and removing pressure from his own players, his bullish confidence, although typically Australian, has seemed more reminiscent of Steve Waugh's all-conquering era than appropriate to his fledgling start.

Favourites
Graeme Smith even offered to accept the "favourites" tag should it be offered – or even thrust upon his team. "We are number one in the world," he said, "so I'm not going to argue if people say we should win."

But Clarke has been reluctant to concede any advantage.

For a long time after Smith and his team conquered the last remaining peak in South African Test history, the "Everest" of winning a series in Australia, four years ago, there was something just slightly affected about their relaxed demeanour in subsequent series. It was as if they felt they should be more relaxed and therefore would be so. But sometimes it was not convincing.

Now, instead of "hoping" they will repeat their best form when it matters most, it seems they "believe" they will be able to do so. "We trust in each other," said JP Duminy at the traditional pre-season luncheon in front of 500 guests on Wednesday. "We are a team, not just three or four match-winners and the rest … we all know that every one of us can make the difference between winning and losing."

Instead of encouraging his players to relax and trust in their ability, Clarke is exhorting his players to raise their game for the forthcoming challenge. It may have worked for the warriors of Henry V and Shaka Zulu, but in the modern era of professional sport there is a danger of sending the message that the "usual best" will not be good enough. Smith, on the other hand, said (pardon the clichés): "If we play to our potential and stick to our disciplines, I believe we will win."

Gary Kirsten's pre-match lack of interest in the condition of the pitch has become as disarming as it is charming. Whereas most coaches elevate the "reading" of conditions to a bizarre, semi-mythical science, Kirsten shrugged with whimsy: "It doesn't matter, really, does it? It still comes down to which team adapts better over the course of five days."  At a push, he conceded that there "could be something in it [for the seamers] on the first day".

Clarke's bullishness could become a bull in a china shop if he backs his attack of Peter Siddle, Ben Hilfenhaus and Mitchell Starc against Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander and Morné Morkel, all ranked in the world's top seven.

If the green grass is cut short, the contest will start as a "batathon" between the top orders with the intention of applying pressure through sheer weight of runs and waiting for the inevitable cracks and deterioration on the last two days. Clarke will back himself, naturally. But will the rest of his men including 30-year-old debutant Rob Quiney with a first-class average of 37 after 50 games – have the game to overrun the South Africans, four of whom average close to or above 50?

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