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Battle at the Summit: Aus v SA Preview - Chetan Narula Column
by Chetan Narula
Dec 15, 2008
Bangladesh captain Mohd. Ashraful has had a pretty difficult year. He has led his team to Australia and South Africa in a span of three months, and goes without saying, lost against both. But it was one of his remarks at the end of November that is a pointer to the obvious wind of change blowing through world cricket. He remarked that South Africa was the toughest opposition in the recent times that they have played in recent times. Mind you, not Australia!

It has been that sort of a year. South Africa have virtually stamped their authority on world cricket with a run of nine unbeaten test series, including one in India, a 1-1 draw where they had the upper hand throughout. And we all know how Australia fared in India, smacked from one part of the country to another; went back howling.

The thing about Australia is that they don't forget losses that hurt them. And the Indian tour indeed hurt them. So much so that they kept talking about it even while playing against New Zealand, a series which they won comfortably by the way. But India kept on creeping up the horizon, the Aussie fatalities very much visible. And the biggest of them all, lack of a quality spinner. Jason Krejza is not a soothing sight for people born and bred on the pedigrees of Richie Benaud and Shane Warne.

But spin is the least of their problems this time around. They are back in their own den, and slow bowling will be just an instrument to vary their pace based attack. Yes, pace will be the keyword in this series. For both sides have fast bowlers who have done well round the world in recent times.

In Brett Lee, Mitchell Johnson, Peter Siddle and a fit Stuart Clark, the home team possesses a quite potent attack. It is a fact that they couldn't do much in India, but one thinks that was more to do with the head. Lee was having his personal problems; Johnson – even though their best bowler - on a first Indian tour was always going to be short on experience; Siddle again suffering from the debut syndrome, and Clark was a non-starter after the first test. All in all, the Aussies didn't have much of a bowling attack to boast in India where even the best bowlers end up shooting blanks.

But two matches back home, helpful pitches with true bounce throughout, they roared back to form against the Kiwis. Especially Lee, who holds the key for them in this coming series! For years and years, the Aussie pace spearheads have been the key to their success at home as they are charged with the duty to target the best opposition batsmen, and the captains. And a Brett Lee in good form will go a long way in determining how the Proteas' batsmen will perform.

Clark is struggling with his fitness so Siddle should come in and there's also Nathan Bracken if any one remembers his off-cutters. But Johnson is the other vital cog in their bowling machinery. The young left-arm bowler has grown leaps and bounds over the past two months, giving his pairing with Lee an almost McDermott-Reid nexus.

The strange point is that the visitors also possess an equally adept attack. Some my say, that they are even better than the ones in the Australian team, but there is no sure way to know that. All one can do is reflect over the past performances. And it so happens, it is one series that tells the difference between the two sides. India, again!

While the Aussie pacemen struggled for any sort of help from the Indian pitches, their South African counterparts were actually instrumental in putting India on the back-foot in Chennai and Ahmedabad, scripting a win in the latter. Dale Steyn, Makhaya Ntini and Mornie Morkel have since been rated highly wherever they have gone, a series triumph in England another ode to them.

Plus they have Paul Harris and Jacques Kallis to back them up, which brings a lot more variety than a Shane Watson-Andrew Symonds combo would. On hindsight though, it would be prudent to suggest that the bowling attacks of both the sides are well balanced and on equal measure. And given their standards, sharpness on the field is to be expected.

Thus in order to separate these two teams and indeed find a winner amongst them, it is the batting that has to be answered for. Although their names still instill fear amongst the many bowling line-ups in the world, there is a feel of rusty-ness to the Aussie line-up and it starts right at the top. Mathew Hayden currently has all sorts of doubts in his mind and he's not finding any answers, as is suggested by his declaration that he will ease himself out of the team within a couple of seasons. Ricky Ponting is another worry, his wrist being in question, its fitness no one quite sure about.

This in turn plays too much pressure on the shoulders of Simon Katich, Michael Clarke and Mike Hussey, while Symonds needs to stand up for once, on the field that is. Shane Watson and Brad Haddin together may not be able to do what Adam Gilchrist alone did lower down the order and therefore, it becomes imperative that the top order fires. On home soil, that shouldn’t be a problem but when was the last time that the Aussies were so top heavy?

The same can be said of South Africa, top heavy that is, but there is a feeling of self assuredness amongst them, rather than any persistent doubts. And this emanates from the great form they have displayed over the past season, in Pakistan, India and then England. McKenzie and Smith play foil to each other while Amla anchors well, thanks to Kallis and Prince dropping down. AB de Villiers floats up and down the order as required, and Boucher & Morkel are no slouches with the willow, underlining their prowess in the stroke making department as well. As mentioned afore, a feel of assurance!

South Africa's one bane may prove to be their squad's fitness, but if they can somehow get the whole touring party geared up for the entire series, it will only play into their hands. That being said, it will depend largely on the captain versus captain battle. Lee will be going for Smith's head and the same can be said for Steyn gunning for Ponting's top. Who keeps his in place will go a long way in determining the ICC Test Rankings in late January next year!

The high point from a neutral view is that there has been plenty of chatter already and unlike previous tours, the Proteas aren't holding themselves back. They know they can pull it off, a win in Oz. All that remains to be done is act on their words in the middle while the Aussies will again look to douse their fires. Let the battle commence!
 
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