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