SA's crowing turns to cries

Field Marshal Erwin Rommel allegedly remarked during the North African campaign that he always knew when the Allies were serious—they committed the Australians.

Never underrate them is the moral of the Wanderers Test, even this side, which lacks the normal quota of cricketing immortals and the recommended balance between experience and new blood.

How pitifully half-cocked all the pre-match triumphalism in the local media now seems—SuperSport’s crowing Ricky Ponting ads and the hype about the battle for top slot in the Test rankings.

What must have particularly alarmed Graeme Smith’s men was the stark imbalance between the sides, in a match played in front of a fanatically partisan crowd and in conditions ideal for South Africa’s vaunted seam attack.

It was a whipping, with the issue never seriously in doubt after lunch on day three. In two attempts the home side could barely scrape past Australia’s
first innings total.

What marks out Australian cricketers is not just their ferocious will to dominate a sport that is central to the national identity. It is their resourcefulness, discipline, long-range goal direction and shrewd ability to locate and prise open chinks in the opposition’s armour.

This is a modest outfit by their lofty standards.
With 90-odd Test wickets, Mitchell Johnson is shadowing Glenn McGrath, but the rest of the fast-bowling line-up is aggressive, controlled and resolute rather than destructive. Only Ponting and Michael Clarke feature in the International Cricket Council’s (ICC) batting top 10.

But it has youthful vigour and a strong esprit de corps, evident from the constant mutual back-patting and geeing-up in the field. And as commentator Mark Nicholas remarked, with Matthew Hayden’s departure it is finally Ponting’s unit.

The Australians are either getting better, or the underlying balance of power is becoming clearer as the series proceeds.

They have now convincingly won two Tests in a row. And many local punters forget that at points in both Perth and Melbourne, South Africa was staring down the barrel.

A former Test batsman for both countries, Kepler Wessels, says that what most impressed him at the Wanderers was “the technical and tactical work they [the Aussies] have done. They’ve come with purpose; they’ve analysed each batsman closely.

“In Australia, on those flat wickets, they couldn’t create pressure. Now they’re bowling to a plan.”

Two clear cases of strategic forethought involved Smith, bamboozled by Johnson’s newly developed outswinger, and JP Duminy, whose last four innings, three of them curtailed by Johnson, have yielded 13, 16, 17 and 29.

Duminy was systematically softened up before meekly succumbing in both innings at the Wanderers, and his vulnerability to the short ball must be starting to worry the selectors.

Wessels said that more conducive conditions for seam bowling in South Africa had narrowed the margin between the sides, predicting that although “it would not do as much for as long”, there would still be pace and bounce at Kingsmead on days one and two.

But he insists that South Africa “still has the better combination. The Australians surprised everybody by playing as they did.”

Given the deficiencies in the batting department, it is baffling that the gritty Ashwell Prince—with 10 Test centuries and an average of 45,68—should again be excluded for the Durban match.

The difficulty is where to slot him in. Wessels argues that the choice is not between Prince and Duminy, but between Prince and opener Neil McKenzie. The latter option would mean opening with Hashim Amla, currently at three, “moving everyone one up” and slotting Prince into the middle order.

He believes that for Durban the selectors are right to keep faith with the existing line-up, but suggests that much will turn on the outcome.

Cricket SA spokesperson Michael Owen-Smith offers an alternative theory—that openers are born, not made, and that batting at number two is so intensely specialised that McKenzie’s place is unassailable.

This ignores Amla’s experience as a one-day opener and the fact that McKenzie himself started life as a middle-order batsman.

The Australians have one goal in mind: to blot out the humiliating home leg of the series as decisively as they did by steamrolling England in 2006-07, 18 months after losing the Ashes.

A series rout is not out of the question. It should be remembered that Ian Craig’s all-conquering 1957-58 side—in which Ritchie Benaud played a pivotal role—also started as underdogs.

In South African’s favour is the fact that they should now have recovered from their ring rustiness, hopefully meaning that Morné Morkel will bowl straighter. They can console themselves that in four recent home series they have lost the first Test and come back to win or draw.

And, like Rommel, they can have no illusions this time about the seriousness of the enemy’s intent.

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