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SPIRO: Forget the Ashes, South Africa the real test for Clarke's men

Michael Clarke's willingness to switch things up in attack has Australia on top. (AFP PHOTO/William WEST)
Expert
11th February, 2014
65
2282 Reads

The South Africa v Australia series that starts today on the bouncy Centurion green top is the real contest for the best Test team in world cricket.

The re-capture of the Ashes by Michael Clarke’s baggy green caps was a splendid and admittedly unexpected triumph. But England rolled over like a bulldog that had its teeth extracted and had been fed a diet of mashed vegetables.

Team spirit is high in the South African camp. They have the resolute batting and the fiery bowling to test Australia’s batting and bowling in a way that England, in the last series, were totally incapable of doing.

We now know, too, that there was dissension in the England camp with Kevin Pietersen and Alastair Cooke not getting on. This spat, or continuing feud that Pietersen has had with the English cricket hierarchy, seemed to affect the performances of both players.

The result was that England’s traditionally stolid batting collapsed under the pressure of a very potent trio of fast bowlers.

And their bowling, without Graeme Swann (why did he really desert?) in the later Tests and with James Anderson in poor form, was not up to the task of dismissing the tough Australian lower order.

Teams that are split, as England were, rarely perform cohesively. Australia exploited the dysfunction, which was good. But they are not going to have this sort of advantage with the South Africans.

Now here is a question: Who is the South African coach?

Give up? He is Russell Domingo. We hear nothing from him. Most us know nothing about him, even though South Africa are the number one Test side. I think this tells us something significant about the current South African side.

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This is an old-fashioned side that takes its leadership from a strong captain, Graeme Smith, and a strong set of team leaders like AB de Villiers and Dale Steyn, the best fast bowler in world cricket and arguably one of the greatest in the history of the game.

I said old-fashioned, because in the modern era most teams, even those well-captained like Australia, are coach-driven.

Sometimes the coaches drive their teams off the road to success. But this is what happens, in cricket, when the coach becomes the dominant member of the side.

This gets us to the great unknown about the Test series – how will the re-organised Australian batting line-up cope with the brilliant South African fast bowling attack?

This article was written before the Australian team was announced. I am presuming that Moises Henriques will be slotted into the No.6 batting position, where Shane Watson would have batted if he’d been available.

The argument for this is that Henriques is likely to score as many runs as any other contender for the No.6 position. He also has the ability to be a useful fourth seam bowler to back up inroads made by the top three, or take up more of the bowling if one of them gets injured during the Test.

The only other batting position that is open is No.3. The original intention of the selectors was to play Shaun Marsh or Alex Doolan in this position, until Marsh got injured and Phil Hughes was brought into the squad.

Now, after scoring 60 or so in the Big Bash final, Marsh is back in South Africa and, one supposes, in contention.

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Marsh has a Test batting average of 30.1 in seven Tests, but batting at No.3 his average is 27.1 with a highest score of 141.

Marsh is a batsman who always looks better than what he actually is. His elegant style and the easy manner in which he goes about scoring his runs (and his lack of them in huge numbers) means that he usually flatters only to deceive.

Phil Hughes, on the other hand, scores better than he looks capable of doing. He bats like a fish out of water. In 23 Tests he has averaged 32.65 and 37.2 at No.3 in seven Tests. His highest Test score is 160.

In my opinion, Hughes should only be played in Test cricket as an opener. He likes the ball coming on to the bat. He also exploits the lack of fielders in front of the wicket with his unusual slashes through the offside of the field.

This leaves Alex Doolan. He is yet to play Test cricket and his first class average of 37.92 in 53 matches is ordinary. His highest score is 161.

The point about Doolan is that he has the style, method and temperament to be an excellent No.3. I could be wrong but I believe he will be the first choice No.3 for Australia in this series.

Whoever goes in at first drop will face a real test of their ability and character. He has to ensure that Clarke does not have to come in on too many occasions with Australia two down for not too many runs, for I am not convinced that Clarke is a natural No.4 batsman.

His average in this position over the year is 44, compared with his much higher numbers at No.5.

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For a sort of comparison of the two batting line-ups here are the career averages of the top six South African batsmen: G. Smith (49.56), A. Petersen (38.82), H. Amla (51.34), A.B. de Villiers (51.71), J.P. Duminy (32.88), F. du Plessis (60.15).

The Australian batting line-up had only one batsman averaging over 50, Michael Clarke (51.44), and two batsman averaging (just) over 40, David Warner (40.93) and Chris Rogers (40.42).

So what we have is a terrific Australian bowling line-up, with Nathan Lyon now rightly sharing the limelight in a four-pronged attack, against a terrific South African batting line-up. Remember that in the last Ashes series, Australia took all 100 England wickets on offer, a very rare feat.

Plus, a terrific South African bowling line-up, but lacking of a true spinner, against a resilient Australian batting line-up that somehow got enough runs in the Ashes series despite collapses in the top order in the first innings of the Tests.

Both teams are splendidly captained, with the dour but tough-minded Smith for South Africa and the quick-thinking and intuitive Clarke for Australia.

The Australian side is on the rise. South Africa, now without Jacques Kallis, the second-greatest all-rounder to Garfield Sobers in the history of cricket, are clearly weaker than in the recent past. But it is still a formidable team in every aspect of the game.

We have any number of great players on both sides. Several of them (but whom?) are going to determine the outcome of the Test series with great deeds with bat and ball.

There will be no fearless predictions about the outcome of this series from me. I leave it to the ‘glorious uncertainty’ of the game to entrance us in what are sure to be three enthralling Tests.

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