Nielsen warns South Africa over 'cheap' talk
Australia and South Africa are incapable of competing without pre-series bluster but Tim Nielsen, the Australia coach, has said Graeme Smith's men face an enormous task to back up their words with on-field success. South Africa's coach Mickey Arthur said earlier this week his side would try to exploit Andrew Symonds' temperament and the uncertainty over Matthew Hayden's future when the first Test starts in Perth on December 17.
Arthur labelled South Africa's fast-bowling line-up as the most exciting group he had been around and Smith has spoken of the team's confidence in the lead-up to the tour. However, Smith had also sparked a pre-series war of words in 2005-06 only for his side to lose 2-0 and Nielsen said the Australians would not hesitate to remind South Africa of their poor record in Australia, where they have won one Test in the post-isolation era.
"They better be ready. They're talking themselves up a lot at the moment," Nielsen said after Australia wrapped up a 2-0 series win over New Zealand in Adelaide. "There's no doubt they've got some good bowling but they've never won over here before, so they'd better play better than they've ever played before. We've got some high-quality players in our top order that are ready for the challenge of South Africa."
Although Hayden and Symonds are still short on runs, several of their team-mates found form against New Zealand including the wicketkeeper Brad Haddin, who posted his first Test century in Adelaide. Nielsen said it was important for the squad to build confidence following the tough tour of India, where they lost 2-0 and some key members of the team struggled.
"We had a couple of guys who got some real personal success as well over the last two Test matches, which is a real fillip for them," Nielsen said. "Hadds obviously getting his big score and Mitchell [Johnson] getting his first five-for and then Brett [Lee] getting nine wickets here, Andrew Symonds coming back into the team. All those things add up to us being in a much better place than when we left Nagpur a month or so ago."
Form and confidence will be crucial in the three Tests against South Africa, who have not lost a Test series since visiting Sri Lanka in 2006 and are now the second-ranked side behind Australia. Smith, Hashim Amla, Neil McKenzie, Ashwell Prince and AB de Villiers are all in the top ten run scorers in Tests for 2008 and helped South Africa do what Australia could not achieve this year - they drew a series in India.
The attack based around Dale Steyn, Makhaya Ntini and Morne Morkel will also be a threat. However, Australia's captain Ricky Ponting said his men were not concerned about handling the fast bowlers on what is likely to be a bouncy WACA surface.
"It's on paper a very good attack," Ponting said. "It's an attack, though, that hasn't played in Australia, that's the other thing. We all know that it's pretty easy to get carried away with conditions in Perth if you haven't played there before."
The WACA can even trick the home team and last summer Australia played four fast bowlers there, including Shaun Tait, only to lose to India when the pitch failed to offer as much pace as expected. Although Ponting said they would consider a four-man fast-bowling line-up again this year, Nielsen prefers the balance of including a spinner.
"It allows us to get through some overs without being totally defensive at times as well," Nielsen said. "It balances us up nicely and gives us those options if they do get partnerships going that we have something a bit different rather than keep slogging away with the same style of bowling."
A four-man pace attack worked against New Zealand at the Gabba before the offspinner Nathan Hauritz was surprisingly called into the team for Adelaide when Jason Krejza hurt his ankle. Australia are likely to be given a much more rigorous examination by South Africa than they were by New Zealand, who are now ranked eighth, but Nielsen is confident his men can deliver.
"The great thing about these sort of series is that our senior players have shown time and time again when the game's on the line they're willing to stand up and do the job," Nielsen said. "That'll be the challenge for South Africa. Talk is pretty cheap at this time of the summer."
Brydon Coverdale is a staff writer at Cricinfo