South Africa hold advantage in batting
Between 2007 and 2009, an exodus of top players left Australia struggling to maintain their position on top of the Test rankings. They lost a home series for the first time in 16 years (to South Africa) in 2008-09 and went on to lose 2-0 in India. Worse was to follow as they were crushed 3-1 by England in the home Ashes series in 2010-11.
Remarkably, under the leadership of Michael Clarke, Australia have resurrected themselves and now have the chance to go back to No.1 if they can beat South Africa. Since Clarke took over after Ricky Ponting stepped down, Australia have not lost a single series. They beat Sri Lanka 1-0 (in Sri Lanka) and drew against a powerful South Africa team before sweeping the four-Test series at home against India. South Africa, on the other hand, have not lost a single series for more than three years. Their record away from home has been even more outstanding with their previous defeat coming way back in 2006 in Sri Lanka. Given their recent run, the visitors, who reclaimed the No.1 ranking with an impressive 2-0 win in England, will start favourites in Brisbane where Australia have not lost a Test for 24 years.
Since November 2009, Australia have played 11 series winning six of them and losing two. They started with comfortable wins against West Indies and Pakistan at home before tasting defeat in India in a closely-fought series. The home Ashes series, however, turned out to be completely one-sided with England taking the series 3-1 with three innings victories in Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney. Since the Ashes debacle, Australia have lost only two Tests (Hobart and Cape Town) and won seven. In the same period, Australia have been slightly more dominant at home (w/l ratio 2.00) than away (w/l ratio 1.75). South Africa are well ahead of Australia on the overall win-loss ratio (2.75 to 1.87) but have struggled in home Tests. They have managed to win only one home series (against Sri Lanka) and drawn three. South Africa have been a completely different proposition in away Tests though; they have won six Tests with the solitary loss coming in Kolkata in 2010.
|Team||Matches Played||Wins/Losses/draws||W/L ratio||Series played||Series (wins/losses/draws)|
|South Africa (overall)||23||11/4/8||2.75||9||4/0/5|
|South Africa (home)||10||5/3/2||1.66||4||1/0/3|
|South Africa (away/neutral)||13||6/1/6||6.00||5||3/0/2|
Despite their consistent run in Tests since readmission, South Africa have never quite been able to solve the Australian riddle. In their first two series, the teams won two matches each and drew two. However, ever since Australia won the series in South Africa in 1997, the momentum swung completely in favour of Australia. Between 2000 and 2006, Australia had a 10-1 record in head-to-head Tests and won all four series played. Australia's brief decline in 2008 enabled South Africa to compete far more effectively and as a result, the two teams have been evenly-matched (4-4) in their last eight Tests. Overall, since 1992, Australia hold a 19-8 advantage in the 32 matches played. While the teams have been involved in just five draws in the same period, they have played out only one draw (in 20 matches) since the start of 2000.
Considering their dominance of the head-to-head contests, Australia's superior batting average comes as no surprise. They are also well ahead on the series wins (7-1) and number of centuries scored (40 to 20). By virtue of possessing a strong bowling attack, South Africa have a high number of wickets-per-match (15.53) but are still marginally behind Australia, who have a corresponding figure of 17.06. In the 1990s, Australia won two series with two others ending in draws. The difference between the teams' batting averages for Australia in the decade was 5.72, which is slightly lower than the overall figure of 6.86. Between 2000 and 2007, Australia were well an truly on top winning all four series including two by a margin of 3-0. While the Australian batsmen scored 22 centuries in these 12 Tests, their South African counterparts managed just six. Australia, who had an average difference of 15.18, were also well ahead on the wickets-per-Test figure (18.75 to 14.33) in this period. A glance at the stats for the period 2008-2012 conveys how closely matched the teams have been. The teams, who have won one series each (two series drawn), have very similar batting averages. South Africa have the higher number of centuries (10 to 8) and a higher value of wickets per match (18.37 to 15.50).
|Period||Played||Wins (Aus/SA)||Bat avg (Aus/SA)||Avg diff (Aus)||Series wins (Aus/SA)||100s (Aus/SA)||Wickets taken per Test (Aus/SA)|
In the absence of Shane Watson, Australia will definitely be hoping that their experienced trio of Ponting, Clarke and Michael Hussey step up. Ponting, who holds the record for the most Test centuries against South Africa, has had a mixed run in his last few series against the visitors. He scored seven centuries in four series between 2002 and 2006 including three in the 2005-06 series at home when he became the only batsman to score twin centuries in his 100th Test. However, in the last two series, Ponting has managed only 280 runs at an average of 28 with three half-centuries. Clarke, who succeeded Ponting as captain, scored a brilliant 151 in the first innings in Cape Town last year but the knock went in vain as Australia shockingly folded for 47 in their second innings. Hussey, who scored his solitary century (122) against South Africa in the Boxing Day Test in Melbourne in 2005, has been out of sorts in the last three series; in 16 innings, Hussey has managed just 277 runs at an average of 18.46 with one half-century.
While Jacques Kallis' overall figures since November 2011 (694 runs at 49.57) are impressive, a closer look suggests otherwise. In 16 innings, he has scored three centuries (224, 113 and 182) but has been dismissed seven times in single figures. While he averages 61.34 against other teams, Kallis has a much lower average (39.13) in 26 Tests against Australia. While both AB de Villiers and Hashim Amla average in the mid 40s against Australia, Graeme Smith averages well below his career mark of 49.78. Smith, however, set up South Africa's successful chase in Cape Town last year when he scored his fourth fourth-innings century.
|AB de Villiers||14||1024||44.52||3/8|
Despite averaging nearly 40 for the first wicket, both Australia and South Africa have fiddled around with the opening partnership in the last two years. With the aggressive Watson missing out, Australia are likely to go with the David Warner-Ed Cowan partnership, which was moderately successful in the home series against India. Amla's exceptional run in the last two years has ensured that South Africa have a much higher average for the second-wicket partnership. Although Ponting rediscovered his form in the India series, Australia's average for the third wicket (39.34) is well below South Africa's corresponding number (83.33). The presence of Clarke and Hussey in the middle order gives Australia an edge over South Africa, who are likely to play JP Duminy and Jacques Rudolph at six and seven. While the two teams have similar numbers for the fifth and sixth-wicket stands, South Africa have a significantly better average for the seventh-wicket partnership.
|Partnership wicket||Australia (Average)||South Africa (average)||Australia (100/50)||South Africa (100/50)|
An intriguing contest in the series will be the clash of the two high-quality pace attacks. Although Australia don't have Mitchell Johnson, who was their best bowler in the two series in 2008-09, they have an array of fast-bowling options led by Ben Hilfenhaus and Peter Siddle. Both bowlers were at their best in the home series against India with Hilfenhaus finishing with 27 wickets in four Tests. Since his return to the team, Hilfenhaus has picked up 40 wickets in just eight Tests at an average of 19.85. He has been far more successful against right-handers picking up 36 wickets at an average of 15.86 and strike rate of 33.97. His ability to swing the new ball away from the right-handers will make him a major threat for the South African top order which has four right-handers. Siddle, who has been far more potent after switching to a slightly fuller length, has picked up 44 wickets at 26.36 in his last 11 Tests. In contrast to Hilfenhaus, Siddle has done fairly well against left-handers though he has better numbers against right-handers. Although Pat Cummins, who picked up 6 for 79 on debut against South Africa in Johannesburg last year, has been ruled out due to injury, Australia have excellent back-up options in Mitchell Starc and James Pattinson,
Vernon Philander, who became the joint second-fastest bowler to the fifty-wicket mark, has outstanding numbers in his ten Tests so far. He has dismissed 43 right-handers (average 16.72) and 20 left-handers (average 14.35). Dale Steyn, who bowled South Africa to a series win in Melbourne in 2008, has lost a bit of form in the last year but has still managed to maintain very good numbers. However, his strike rate in the period (49.0) is higher than his career figure of 43.30. Steyn has been particularly successful against Clarke and Hussey, whom he has dismissed five times each. Morne Morkel has been the least impressive of the South African pace bowlers but has tasted success against Hussey and Ponting (five dismissals each). Though Watson's absence is a huge blow to Australia, they can take confidence from the fact that Nathan Lyon has clearly outperformed Imran Tahir (26 wickets at 40.19) in the last year.
|Bowler||Matches||Right handers (wickets/avg)||Right handers (strike rate)||Left handers (wickets/avg)||Left handers (strike rate)||Overall (wickets/avg)||Overall (strike rate)|
Australia have not lost a Test in Brisbane since the nine-wicket loss to West Indies in 1988. In their last five matches at the venue, they have won four and drawn one (against England). However, this will be the first time they face off against South Africa at the Gabba since South Africa's readmission. Since 1992, South Africa have won only three Tests in Australia and one of them has come in Perth, the venue for the third Test. In Tests since 2007, Brisbane has a high average (42.85) in the first innings but lower numbers in the subsequent innings. As has been the norm for years, pace bowlers have dominated the stats at the venue (111 wickets at 33.01). Adelaide has been extremely batsman friendly in the first two innings (44.59 and 53.97) but the averages fall exponentially in the third and fourth innings. Again, pace bowlers have been more successful though the spinners' contribution (41 wickets) is significant. Except for the 2008 Test when South Africa chased 414, Perth has always been a wicket that has favoured the bowlers. The average does not exceed 36 in any of the four innings and drops below 25 in the third innings. Spinners have done very little of note at the venue managing just 25 wickets at 42.84. In sharp contrast, fast bowlers have had a great time picking up 153 wickets at 27.01.
|Venue||Matches||Wins/losses (Australia)||1st inns/2nd inns (avg)||3rd inns/4th inns (avg)||Pace (wkts, avg)||Spin (wkts, avg)|
|Brisbane||5||4/0||42.85/30.06||34.68/25.25||111, 33.01||29, 40.24|
|Adelaide||5||2/1||44.59/53.97||30.00/27.53||97, 39.40||41, 50.80|
|Perth||5||3/2||35.19/27.22||24.86/35.29||153, 27.01||25, 42.84|
Madhusudhan Ramakrishnan is a sub-editor (stats) at ESPNcricinfo