Talking the talk
People expecting a sledging match between Australia and South Africa on Friday might actually find that a game of cricket breaks out. The build-up to the first Test at the WACA has contained more bluster than the Roaring Forties as both teams talk up their chances and pick verbal holes in those of their opponents. It has been entertaining but will hold little relevance when the two southern-hemisphere powerhouses meet for this Australian summer's most anticipated contest.
The more worrying problems for both sides are their disrupted preparations. Australia had a shoe-horned one-day series to play after comfortably sweeping aside West Indies and have spent this week forgetting the slow and swinging conditions of New Zealand and adapting to the bounce and pace of Perth. Bowling was the major concern as they won the Chappell-Hadlee Series 2-1 - they twice gave up totals of more than 300 - but Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne were safely resting at home with this contest in mind. South Africa must have wished for such luxuries.
Touring teams will always struggle during their first weeks in Perth and the Proteas have been hurt badly, mainly through injury but also in unconvincing results against modest opposition, including an innings loss in their first fixture. Modern-day lead-up form can be easily discounted; the injuries are more difficult to forget.
Jacques Kallis is the chief concern and is likely to be ruled out with an elbow problem while Graeme Smith (finger), Nicky Boje and Makhaya Ntini (split webbing) have also been inconvenienced. The omission of Kallis, who averages 34.90 with the bat and 39.60 with the ball against Australia, would be a cruel blow for South Africa as it would seriously affect the balance of the side and steal one of their biggest weapons.
A double-century in the final tour match sealed a spot for Jacques Rudolph, who should replace Kallis at No. 4, and the bowling attack will revolve around pace. South Africa have never played a Test at Perth, which must have annoyed Allan Donald, and Shaun Pollock and Co. need to adjust quickly to the extra bounce or they will be punished by Langer, Hayden and Ponting.
Australia's middle order still carries some uncertainty either side of Michael Hussey, who averages more than 100 in Tests and ODIs, with Brad Hodge and Andrew Symonds trying to get long-term footholds and Adam Gilchrist struggling for runs. None of the batting positions were in doubt for this game and the only debate centred around Nathan Bracken or Stuart Clark. Bracken claimed four wickets in his last Test innings and his left-arm variation and ability to swing the ball won him an appointment into the wind of the Fremantle Doctor. "The last Test [Bracken] played he bowled really well," Ponting told AAP.
How the batsmen cope against the bowling will be the key to the series. If South Africa can repel the world-class charges of McGrath and Warne and make regular dents in their opponent's inexperienced middle they will go a long way towards winning their first Test since the epic SCG match in 1993-94. Only five times have they been victorious in Australia in 29 games and their best results were drawn series in '52-53, '63-64 and '93-94.
South Africa tours generally have a way of attracting controversy and are one reason why the head-to-heads create so much local attention. Another excuse is the cricket is played hard and passionately. Macho talk has dominated the lead-up and is certain be a prominent characteristic throughout the three-Test series.
Australia 1 Matthew Hayden, 2 Justin Langer, 3 Ricky Ponting (capt), 4 Brad Hodge, 5 Michael Hussey, 6 Andrew Symonds, 7 Adam Gilchrist (wk), 8 Shane Warne, 9 Brett Lee, 10 Nathan Bracken, 11 Glenn McGrath.
South Africa (probable) 1 Graeme Smith (capt), 2 AB de Villiers, 3 Ashwell Prince, 4 Jacques Rudolph, 5 Herschelle Gibbs, 6 Justin Kemp, 7 Mark Boucher, 8 Shaun Pollock, 9 Charl Langeveldt, 10 Andre Nel, 11 Makhaya Ntini.
Peter English is the Australasian editor of Cricinfo