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Australia were good in the recent Ashes series. They surprised me and they surprised the cricketing world after their domination of England.
But make no mistake, Michael Clarke’s men face a much sterner Test against South Africa on their own turf.
England arrived Down Under confident, if not a touch arrogant, thinking everything would fall into place for another English Ashes victory. Mitchell Johnson put rest to that. By Sydney, England were absolutely mentally shot.
The way they collapsed on the third afternoon like a club side spoke volumes. Australia verbally and physically targeted England, especially the tail a la the great West Indies teams of years gone.
Bouncers by the Australian bowlers rattled the English tail to virtual submission. At times it was brutal and cringe worthy. Darren Lehmann has stated after the Ashes that he sees no reason why that bouncer tactic won’t continue in Africa.
Fair enough. But when they try to bounce Dale Steyn, the Australians will know he’ll dish it back tenfold.
Approach with caution.
Staying with the Australian bowlers, even though they have the brimstone and lightning of Johnson, the attack essentially relies on relenting accuracy, not too dissimilar to England’s mantra of 2010-11, although they didn’t have the trump card of someone like Mitchell Johnson.
Mitchell Johnson bowls in three or four over spells, while Clarke can rotate Ryan Harris who is a bit quicker than you think.
He can then bring on Peter Siddle, who is unrelenting with his seam movement and handing the ball to Shane Watson – who can bowl the driest spells ever.
He can then bring Johnson back to rattle some more birdcages.
Johnson had improved his accuracy from series gone by in this Ashes series, which again helps that suffocating pressure the other bowlers build up.
England’s run rate frequently hovered around two and a half in the series, and while their batting wasn’t as aggressive as it should’ve been, Australia didn’t give them anything to hit.
This is where a clear mind and a more aggressive mentality will help South Africa. In essence, they know what’s coming. Bouncers from Johnson at pace, fast swingers on a good length from Harris, and little nibblers from Siddle and Watson.
It is imperative then, that the South African batsman look to score against one of these bowlers, and attack them. England’s shot selection let them down more than anything, playing rash strokes or poor foot movement bringing their downfall.
South African batsman, on their own surfaces, shouldn’t make the same mistakes.
They also need to get after Nathan Lyon.
Although the tweeker has improved, he did take five wickets at the MCG without turning one ball.
Again, the mentally fragile state of the English line-up went towards this.
The English often ‘sat’ on Lyon, just dead batting him.
Meanwhile, Graeme Swann was battered and belted to an early retirement.
If South Africa attack Lyon, it’ll force Clarke to bring Johnson on earlier than he needs, and force Harris and Watson into extra spells, which with their fragile bodies is dangerous.
On Australia’s batting side of things, they will be tested too, because the South African wickets move laterally more than most, which doesn’t help Australia’s already feeble first innings efforts.
If it weren’t for Brad Haddin, Australia might’ve only passed 200 a couple of times in the series.
But against the best attack, the best team in the world, they won’t be allowed such generosity.
If you manage to see off Dale Steyn’s fast hoopers, you then have to face Vernon Philander’s nagging seamers, and then finally Morne Morkel’s steepling bounce.
The retirement of Kallis will hurt, but two years ago Australia was skittled for 47 against the same attack.
Two handy bats in Ponting and Hussey were part of that collapse. If faced with the same situation, can lesser batsman like Steve Smith and George Bailey do a better job? It is a daunting question they have to ask themselves.
It is also worth noting that in the last 15 months, Steyn, Philander and Morkel have bowled opponents out for under 50 on three separate occasions (Australia, New Zealand, Pakistan).
Australia do have a couple of saving graces in Robin Peterson and South Africa’s mentality.
Peterson looks to dry up an end with his left arm orthodox rather than spinning a web.
If they can attack someone of Swann’s calibre, Peterson will be no troubles.
The number one team in the world recently fell 14 runs short of a world record run chase against India, choosing to block the remaining overs for a draw with three wickets in the shed rather than make history.
Michael Clarke and Australian teams are almost allergic to that sort of thinking, so that will play on the South African minds, and give Australia a boost.
That said, David Warner still has no overseas hundreds, and only two first innings hundreds. While his feet are David Warner’s feet, they will be tested every day he bats.
Shane Watson, while important, is bloody frustrating, an unfulfilled potential and has a bulging front pad. Vernon Philander eat your heart out.
Steve Smith, who is a much improved batsman, still has a see ball hit ball mentality, so he either makes runs, or fails. There is no in between. He needs to make it.
And George Bailey, well, he might not even be there. Or he could be Australia’s next Test captain if Clarke’s back calls it a day. Either prospect is daunting.
So, while Australia were ultra-impressive against England and could well do it again in South Africa, they would be wise to be on their toes, because South Africa are number one for a reason.
Smith, Amla and De Villiers are some of the world’s best, and won’t bat like England, and their bowlers won’t bowl like England. It will be tough for Australia. It shapes as a good’un.