Smith ready for 'unique challenges' in Australia
South Africa's preparations for their three-Test tour of Australia have hit a speed bump. The team management asked for their three-day practice match in Sydney to be played at venue closer to the first Test in Brisbane, without success.
"We tried hard to move it from Sydney but we haven't had any luck," Graeme Smith, the South Africa Test captain, said prior to the team's departure. "But we'll have to get stuck in and make it count no matter where we play it. We are not going to be able to use that as an excuse."
With no Test matches between the two countries taking place over the festive season, South Africa will play at the Gabba for the first time since readmission. They have only ever played three Test matches at the venue, the last one being in 1963, and lost two of them.
Despite the hiccup in preparation, Gary Kirsten believes the squad will be ready to take on Australia. "We went to England in the same way. We wanted to prepare really well. We didn't want to say too much, we wanted to make our performances count because in a three-match series, one session can make a big difference," Kirsten said.
As was the case with South Africa in England earlier in the year, they may be accused of being undercooked in Australia. Of the touring party, six have not played any competitive cricket since the squad returned from England. Smith, Dale Steyn, Hashim Amla, Robin Peterson and JP Duminy were given time off, while AB de Villiers has been recovering from a chronic back injury. Morne Morkel, Thami Tsolekile, Alviro Petersen, Jacques Kallis, Faf du Plessis and Jacques Rudolph all took part in the Champions League T20, while Vernon Philander, Rory Kleinveldt and Imran Tahir have played some first-class cricket.
But Kirsten has maintained that action on the field is not as important as the mental aspect of getting ready. Smith believes the team has done as much as they can in that regard. "We know we are going to face some unique challenges in Australia and we will be ready for them," he said.
One of those will be going up against the man who put the foundations in place for their ultimate rise to No.1: Mickey Arthur. Under him, South Africa won in both England and Australia in 2008 and 2009, and his knowledge of the South Africa team may give Australia the advantage. Smith does not see it as too much of a hurdle.
"As a South African, It's not something new that we have had to face [one of our own in another team]. I suppose, if we can put Australia under pressure, we know how Mickey is going to be reacting in the change room. But if I lose sleep over what Mickey is telling Australia that will affect the team," he said.
The other challenge is the battle of the pace attacks. As was the case ahead of the tour to England, this series is being dubbed the battle of the quicks and South Africa have chosen to go in with only their top three and one backup in Kleinvedlt. Some of Australia's options have been on display in the Champions League with Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins providing a taster for the big meal.
The difference between the two packs could be lack of certainty about who will line-up in Australia's, according to Smith. "We know Ben Hilfenhaus and Peter Siddle are their two main guys and they may rotate the youngsters. So it's also a little bit of an unknown, in terms of who they are going to play," Smith said. "It's all guys that we have come across before, though. We have got a really good pace attack as well and hopefully they can attack. Brisbane and Perth could be quite fiery from the sounds of things. We know our attack has the opportunity to exploit things."
While there was suggestion in Australian media that Smith said the South African bowlers will target Ricky Ponting, Smith has denied making any such comments. "I don't look to put his head on a mantelpiece. He has done well and he deserves all the respect in the world. Our job is to go there and make sure that he doesn't perform," Smith said. "With our bowling attack, we need to be able to put all the Australia batsmen under pressure. We do have a proven bowling attack that has travelled the world and done well, so we are not going headhunting."
Instead, South Africa will focus on stopping an Australian side that Smith said will be bullish. "They are on a momentum shift and an upward curve, and they would believe they are going to beat us there, but it's well known that we've got some really quality players as well."
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent