February 10, 2014

Why Australia will beat South Africa 2-1

You can't sneeze at a side that has Nathan Lyon, that's why

Forthcoming one-on-one: butcher v fisherman © Getty Images

And so to South Africa for these New Australians, and the first big test and reality check following their dismemberment of the Worst Poms Ever. How will things pan out? If you knew, you'd be on to your least favourite bookmaker, such are the ways of men. But you don't, so you won't.

You might have a feeling and guess in an educated fashion. But you don't know. Beefy Botham thought he knew. He tipped England - five-blot, no less - before the Ashes and no one outright guffawed. Indeed plenty nodded along, thinking, Beefy knows heaps about cricket, walking with elephants, and the 1978 Grange Hermitage.

As we found out, Beefy was quite wrong. Yet it needn't preclude Beefy - or indeed battling nuff-nuff columnists - from making predictions. Because Beefy's bullishness and WMDs in Iraq aside, people don't really remember predictions that go wrong. Those who predict that Harry's Boy is a certainty in the fifth at Royal Randwick, these guys still have jobs the next week despite Harry's Boy running in an entirely other direction. And people will still ask Beefy what he thinks about cricket, elephants and expensive antique plonk. And as long as he can make a case, people will stroke their mental goat-beards and muse: I agree or I do not agree or I would kill for a cheeseburger.

And so with that in mind I'm going to tip Australia to win 2-1 over South Africa and proffer these reasons in support of why:

1. Nathan Lyon.

And that's it - just Nathan Lyon. The offspinner is the difference between these teams. Their fielding is roughly the same. Their wicketkeepers are both very fine glove types. The South Africans have better batsmen. The Australians have better bowlers.

Now, now, cool your jets, Jaapie brothers and sisters and estranged stepchildren - cool thou jets. I'm talking about right now, in the now, Australia do have better bowlers. The Aussies are hot, in-form and super-confident in their skills leading into this series, and the South Africans are not, at least not as much.

Consider Dale Steyn: busted rib, a maggot of an injury, hasn't bowled in anger this year. Indeed, all year I've been trying to get hold of Dale for a magazine story about Dale, but according to his manager - who got back to me three weeks after I had filed the piece to ask if I could send him the questions, he'd see what he could do - Dale is very busy.

But Dale is also an inveterate Twitter user and since getting Ishant Sharma caught behind with the last ball of the second Test (the second and only Test, hang your heads in shame, BCCI, you big, rich babies) against India at Kingsmead, Dale's life appears to have been one long holiday of fishing and faffing about.

Check it out: he's caught bass in the Mofam River, shot darts at a rhino from a helicopter, and cheered on his Chelsea. And he has tweeted like a six-fingered schoolgirl. And that's all very good for Dale and good luck to him; the life of a cricketer is 11 months slog and travel and sacrifice.

But fishing and faffing about with dud ribs does not 25 wickets in a three-Test series make. Again, good luck to him, because from all reports he's a super bloke as well as being up there in the pantheon with Lillee and Marshall and the Great Ones of Pace. But fit as he is, in terms of centre-wicket action practice, he'll come in underdone. Just how it is.

Mitchell Johnson, meanwhile, Steyn's direct opponent in the crazy eyes and snarling scary-mouth stakes, has done nothing but eat bleeding sirloin steak, practise karate with his wife and sling cricket balls at posters of Hashim Amla, none of which is true, exactly, except for the bit about karate. True story.

Morne Morkel? Respect, man. Respect. Let me spell it out: R E S P E C T. But I don't think the Australians really fear him like they fear his mate, the fired-up fisherman. Tall and quick and bouncy and accurate, Morkel's a huge proposition from on high and will bounce the ball across the Australian left-handers and into the ribs of the others. He's a brute, big Morne. But Curtly Ambrose he is not.

Vernon Philander? Wow. Second-best strike rate ever among quicks who have taken 100 Test wickets, behind only venerable Englishman GA "George" Lohmann and in front of a certain fisherman with a bung rib. You may have heard of him. But Philander? Wow. On home tracks with a bit in them Philander will nibble and swing subtly at speed. He's a ripper, Vernon, and at home has 62 wickets at 15.24.

But Australia have two of him. Ryan Harris does the same sort of work, as does Peter Siddle. Under Craig McDermott's expert tutorage, they are bowling a beautiful full length at a good rate, swinging it away from the righties, landing it on a length, time after time, with the odd skull-frightener. It's simple and effective and takes Test wickets. And these two want to make their mark in Africa.

Australia's batting? Well, it's the big question mark. Phil Hughes wasn't picked, then was. Shaun Marsh was picked, un-picked and picked again. Alex Doolan's never been picked before. Chris Rogers is in the form of his life, that being the form of his whole life. He knows himself and his game, and is a fine counterfoil for the scattergun banshee Dave Warner, who will smash the sheen off the ball with all parts of his bat, including the big fat edge.

The South African quicks will fancy themselves against all the Aussies, though, particularly Warner and Steve Smith, as good ones do fancy men who throw their hands at the wide pill. But both have pretty good eyes and timing and skill, and have what you might call the Kevin Pietersen approach - they go hard or go home.

South Africa's batsmen? Not a lot of weakness there. But they no longer have Jacques Kallis. And he leaves a hole bigger than the Kola Superdeep Borehole, a scientific hole from the days of the Soviet Union that I found after a Google of the world's biggest holes that surprisingly didn't include Queanbeyan. Whatever - they'll miss big Jacques, as one would the greatest allrounder in the history of cricket.

They'll also miss a spin bowler, at least one the Australians won't fancy like they fancied Graeme Swann, Monty Panesar and Scott Borthwick in Australia. Indeed, such was the Aussies' desire to get after Borthwick in Sydney, the only way they looked like getting out to him was through the insane bloodlust clouding their eyes. (Which is what eventually happened, and Borthwick took four wickets. Anyway.)

Anyway! Australia have Nathan Lyon and he goes okay. Better than okay. And a lot better than South Africa's spinner, who could easily be left on the pine if there's any sort of green tinge to these wickets. They could easily play four quicks, given they have seven batsmen.

Who's going to win? Dunno! Have you read nothing? If I did I would be making my bookmaker sweat like a deep southern American sheriff, one of those Boss Hogg sort of guys from The Dukes of Hazzard, the chubby ones sweating it up and saying, "Hot diggedy dog" and "Marlon, pass me a root beer", and such forth, you know those guys, three wobbly chins, sweating it up.

Unlike my bookie. Because this series is anybody's. And I've death-kissed the Aussies. Sorry, boys.

Matt Cleary writes for several Australian sports and travel magazines. He tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on February 13, 2014, 8:42 GMT

    I`m not a man of stats , so leaving them aside, are you sure clarke+warner+haddin+rogers can match amla+AB+du plesis. And u`re talking about like he is ishant sharma

  • Dummy4 on February 11, 2014, 11:35 GMT

    Spoken like a true Australian. I remember people tipping England to win against SA because the Saffas spent time hitch-hiking. Aus and England have always disrespected the Saffas despite perfomance, can you believe they only put Kallis in the Wisden recently.

  • Hardy on February 11, 2014, 10:48 GMT

    Nathan Lyon? Isn't he the guy A.B. de Villiers reverse-sweeped three times in a row to get to his century in Perth? You seriously think he's going to be a match-winner in South African conditions?

  • Aswin on February 11, 2014, 9:56 GMT

    @ Mark Graham Jones

    mate completely agree with ur thoughts on Harris

    Good to see sensible fans exist in this game .

  • Aswin on February 11, 2014, 9:52 GMT

    @ Xolile with that comment of yours you proved your worth as I mentioned in the 1st line of my previous comment.

    If statistics were the sole yardstick for measuring a player's worth, the R Ashwin would have been the best spinner in the world.

    Dont forget Philander bowls mainly on wickets which seam anyways.

    And when I am comparing bowling styles, how on earth are batting performances and age relevant? And in any case you need a history lesson in cricket- Harris used to bat in the top order at the start of his F/C career and a couple of 50's in Test Cricket.

    I am yet to see Philander destroy a side on subcontinental pitches with reverse swing.

    I am just saying-watch this series and if your eyesight is good, you will know Harris is better than Philander - BY A COUNTRY MILE

  • Anoop on February 11, 2014, 9:26 GMT

    I've been an Aussie fan for over a decade now. The current bunch has really good bowlers than batters. But there's a catch (correct me if I'm wrong). The pace bowlers rarely perform together in one single match. It's either Mitch ON with the rest OFF or Siddle ON with the rest OFF along with Ryan Harris who always picks up 2-3 wickets consistently whenever he plays. Whereas SA most of the time ends with something like Philander - 4 (or more); Steyn - 3 (or more) and Morkel/Kallis - 2 to 3 wickets between them.

    I've a feeling that this tendency will tip the matches towards SA. I think it's a 2-1 for SA though I prefer to see a 1-1 eventually.

  • Clive on February 11, 2014, 7:37 GMT

    Nathan Lyon ......... Only two greats of the game could win a series on South African pitches both Warne and Muralitharan (Sorry Anil) Now this leads me to believe you hold Nathan in the highest calibre even though India toured recently with pitches prepared to suit them (Power of three thing, though not official yet) I do believe there will be some slight assistance in Centurion for the spinners but sadly don't think a spinner will clinch it there or at any of the other venues. One more thing Dale has been cleverly kept rested for the past two years, yes the excuses are a plenty BUT I can tell you bowling is like riding a bicycle to this man and he has proved it. If you told me Siddle was the key for the Aussies I would maybe just maybe give you the benifit.

  • Mashuq on February 11, 2014, 5:49 GMT

    As a South African who has been an Aussie supporter of 53 years, I fear your last words, Matt. It can happen though that Gazza plays a role, but Peterson will play the second and third tests and should not be underestimated there, anymore than when he used the Doctor so well. I'm going to watch to-morrow but I fear the rain here has made your prediction of four seamers quite likely. Without Watto Aus. should also leave Gazza out and play Patto, but even in that unlikely scenario it won't help having guys like Doolan and Marsh as walking wickets. However, if the selectors can react adequately to this imminent defeat and Pup wins the tosses your prediction is a long shot. Personally I'd be happy with 1-1 but I won't be seeing any bookies about this. Agree @MrGarreth on the spin issue. It has a role to play, but only if the batsmen can bat. I'm placing a lot of trust in your adopted son, Rogers, Matt. Can he provide some early backbone? Amla and AB may fail in one test but class wins out

  • KP on February 11, 2014, 0:22 GMT

    Is anyone else salivating in anticipation for this series to begin? Easily the 2 best test teams in the world going around in relatively similar form and position battling it out in 3 tests (thank goodness it isn't going to be a 2-test tease like the last SA tour). I think prior to the injury to Watson, Australia had a significant edge with the balance of the side having a genuine allrounder with experience. Kallis's loss is enormous as suggested by Matt and it feels like SA is a bowler short if they go in with 7 and 4 without McClaren. Australia's bowlers are fitter and have played more in the last couple of months but SA bowlers have bowled against more accomplished batsmen from India in a really competitive series. The form of batsmen are a concern for both teams, Australia will be tested in foreign conditions but Amla and DeVilliers haven't been going well in trials. Should be a tight tussle and I think Australia may pinch it 1-0 with 2 nail-biting draws. Great article Matt :)

  • Mohammad on February 10, 2014, 16:22 GMT

    This is all too much too early to say. Nevertheless SA will have the toughest time thus far as numero uno. This Aussie bowling attack will unearth the hidden fears of anyone given the form and roll they are enjoying right now. Talk about Aussie batting, god save them, barring clarke and to some extent haddin/warner, steyn and co are annihilators.

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