Test of the top two

Ricky Ponting passed on the favourites “label” to Graeme Smith on the Australians’ arrival in South Africa in much the same way ambitious Roman politicians handed the emperor a chalice of wine laced with poison a couple of thousand years ago. It is said that some emperors were poisoned so often they became immune to it. Many a potential assassin, of course, was weaker than the emperor—which is why he reverted to skulduggery.

After several bouts of serious vomiting and other captaincy ailments, Smith’s immunity after six years in the job is more highly developed than most.
Ponting’s “let’s see how they handle the weight of expectation at home” comment was a pitiful attempt to unsettle the Proteas. The Australian captain, as with many Australians, hasn’t yet realised or recognised the quantum shift in the psychological make-up of the current team compared with those of previous generations.

Ponting might still believe he can deflect attention away from the inexperience in his own squad by asking questions of the home side. But the questions are tired and irrelevant now. He might gloss over the lack of knowledge and Test caps among his bowling attack, but former teammates have less reason to fudge.

“The value and importance of experience cannot be overplayed. Anybody who makes the mistake of underestimating the importance of experience is probably making a fatal error,” former opening batsman from the Aussie golden era Justin Langer told the Mail & Guardian from Perth this week.

“Ideally the best national squad contains the country’s very best players, the majority of whom have played at least five or six years plus some with a couple of years and two or three youngsters. That isn’t the case with this Australian squad and that is not an ideal situation,” said Langer, before referring to a lifetime of practice in the martial arts.

“Students learn from their masters, it’s the same in every sport and in every walk of life. If there are more students than masters it’s going to be harder to learn and the process will take longer. Thankfully there is still some great experience in this Australian squad, but not as much as would be ideal.”

There is virtually none among the bowlers, Langer might have added.

Ponting, vice-captain Michael Clarke, senior pro Michael Hussey and feisty opener Simon Katich should provide enough steel in the top order to guarantee Dale Steyn, Makhaya Ntini and Morne Morkel plenty of work but, as Langer admitted, it was the bowling department causing most worries.

“I’m concerned about our ability to take 20 wickets. The attack is one of the least experienced for generations and at least two of the new guys will need to make a name for themselves for Australia to have a realistic chance,” he said.

Another former Aussie great, swing bowler Damien Fleming, was less gloomy about the bowlers’ collective chances. “Mitchell Johnson will be the man to stand up for Australia. His improvement was dramatic, his confidence is up and his spell in Perth was wonderful,” Fleming told the M&G.

“I am also extremely keen for Ben Hilfenhaus to play Test cricket. He is the best outswinger in Australia and his variety is on a par with anyone else. People are writing Australia off in South Africa but the good thing is their bowlers are all providing something a little different,” Fleming said.

Hilfenhaus, Doug Bollinger and Peter Siddle all need to prove themselves, while Johnson, despite just 18 Test caps and 78 wickets, has shown enough talent to lead the attack. Thirtysix-year-old leg spinner Bryce McGain is an honest tryer who will have his moments, while all-rounders Andrew McDonald and Marcus North are also worker bees. The only new face to inspire universal confidence is 20-year-old opener Philip Hughes.

“I’ve been hugely impressed with Hughes. He’s like a sponge who absorbs every bit of information and advice that comes his way. He has aerials on his ears and, just like JP Duminy, who I don’t know personally but the impression is obvious, he has a very mature head on his shoulders,” Langer said.

“Just like Michael Slater, Damien Martyn, Ricky Ponting and Michael Clarke before him, Hughes has not been chosen because he is 20 years old and shows great potential—he has been chosen because he is the most in-form player in Australia at the moment.

“It will be a baptism of fire for him, but if he can get through this tour unscathed by either Dale Steyn or the intense atmosphere that always comes with the tour of South Africa, then his future will be bright and things will augur well for the future,” Langer said.

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