Celebrating SA won't suffer hangover
Graeme Smith has been surprised by Australia's lack of clarity, but the only possible cloudiness in the South African camp has been caused by the celebrations from the peaks of success over the past two weeks. While the visitors have worn the smiles of hard-earned triumphs either side of Christmas, the hosts have been scrooging their way through the festive season while losing a rare series at home.
The SCG is usually a parade ground for the Australians, but this time it will be a desperate fight to avoid a first clean-sweep defeat in a three-Test series in their backyard. While South Africa look down, Australian supporters are wondering how long it will take before they can stop peering up. For the third Test in Sydney, which is starting a day later than usual to give the players more rest, the evolution of the struggling side continues with two debutants in Doug Bollinger and Andrew McDonald.
In the professional climate where the shoe size of every international is known alongside their favourite hitting areas, the South Africans are entering a blind date with Bollinger, the opening bowler, and the allrounder McDonald. It is a situation that is so unfamiliar to Smith that it is giving him flashbacks to his junior days.
"It's not often in world cricket that you arrive at a game and don't know too much about the guys you'll be facing with the new ball," Smith said. "It takes you back to the days at school and club cricket when there was no television around."
Bollinger is a left-arm fast bowler who will start on his home ground and is capable of swinging the new and old ball while McDonald - the South Africans have seen him playing Twenty20 on television for Victoria - is a batsman who chips in with the ball. The selections were a shock for the visitors. "Having Ben Hilfenhaus in [the squad in] Melbourne and now picking Bollinger here probably shows a little bit of lack of clarity in terms of where they want to go," Smith said. "That has surprised us."
Smith is not a man who would admit to fear, and given the recent performances of Australian players considered better than Bollinger and McDonald there is no reason to be scared, but he is wary. "We've got a few interesting challenges ahead of us in this game, a few unknown factors," he said. "[McDonald is] one of them, Bollinger's the other. We've got to make sure we really meet those challenges on the field."
The tourists, who spent New Year's Eve on Sydney Harbour, have little else to worry about and named an unchanged side after Ashwell Prince's cracked thumb did not heal in time. For the past two matches the South Africans have achieved new things, chasing 414 in Perth for the second-biggest pursuit in history, and beating Australia in Melbourne for their first series victory here. They are trying to ensure the final game will not be a let down.
"It's obviously difficult when you've had such great moments in the last two Tests to do it again," Smith said. "The squad is quite calm. Each player is still hungry for performance. There's a real motivation to win the series 3-0. That would be fantastic. That opportunity hasn't come around for many teams often against Australia. Here we sit with that in front of us."
Life is much more difficult for the Australians. Ricky Ponting's leadership has been questioned alongside the decisions of the selectors after 2008 concluded with series losses to India and South Africa. Matthew Hayden, the country's most successful opener, has become a match-by-match prospect due to poor form and Brett Lee, Stuart Clark, Andrew Symonds and Shane Watson are injured.
The new collection has led to Australia breaking with the strange notion of not picking two left-arm fast bowlers in the same attack. (Chris Matthews and Bruce Reid were the last to be used together when they played against England in 1986-87.) While the change of angle will test the batsmen, the bowlers' footmarks will also help the offspinner Nathan Hauritz, who will benefit from any help.
"It's not anything to do with looking to have two left-armers in the side, you've got to pick the guys you think are the best suited to the conditions," Ponting said. "When you've got left-armers as well and you've got a right-arm offspinner in your side that becomes pretty handy."
At a team meeting before training on Friday the Australians outlined their goals for the year and focussed on a fresh start. "The culture that a lot of us grew up in was a very strong winning one and that's what hopefully we've got to do for the younger guys coming into the side right now," Ponting said. "I think it's important that we move on from the last couple of weeks as quick as we can."
Australia 1 Matthew Hayden, 2 Simon Katich, 3 Ricky Ponting (capt), 4 Michael Hussey, 5 Michael Clarke, 6 Andrew McDonald, 7 Brad Haddin (wk), 8 Mitchell Johnson, 9 Nathan Hauritz, 10 Peter Siddle, 11 Doug Bollinger.
South Africa 1 Graeme Smith (capt), 2 Neil McKenzie, 3 Hashim Amla, 4 Jacques Kallis, 5 AB de Villiers, 6 JP Duminy, 7 Mark Boucher (wk), 8 Morne Morkel, 9 Paul Harris, 10 Dale Steyn, 11 Makhaya Ntini.
Peter English is the Australasia editor of Cricinfo