Mickey Arthur October 19, 2011

'Each of Australia's quicks offers something different'

The former South Africa coach looks at how Australia's two-Test series against his former charges might pan out, and which fresh faces could steal the limelight

Some of the most entertaining Test cricket in recent years was played across three months in 2008-09, when South Africa won 2-1 in Australia and then Ricky Ponting's men enjoyed a 2-1 win in South Africa. Mitchell Johnson was at his peak, JP Duminy burst onto the scene, Graeme Smith led South Africa with great courage, and every match provided a long list of highlights. Mickey Arthur was South Africa's coach at the time. Now he is in charge of Western Australia, and keeps a close eye on cricket in both countries. In the lead-up to Australia's two-Test tour of South Africa, he ran his eye over both sides, an Australian team that sits fourth on the rankings but appears on the way up, and a South African outfit that has remained steady near the top of world cricket.

In 2008-09, Australia and South Africa put on two brilliant series at home and away. The way the teams stand now, do you think there is a favourite in the Test series?
I don't think so. I think the Australian team is in quite an exciting phase. They were good in Sri Lanka, and Michael Clarke's captaincy was very good. He was very proactive in what he did. Australia looked a good unit. It's a settled batting unit, but the key is how they will go with their attack and how much bowling they can get out of Shane Watson.

South Africa, in Test cricket, are also very settled. They are a very solid side. I expect to see them play the legspinner Imran Tahir, which will be quite interesting. That means the third seamer becomes more of a workhorse. A guy like [Lonwabo] Tsotsobe probably gets the nod there because he needs to bottle up the game, since the legspinner is a bit of a striker. It's going to be a good series - I'm just disappointed it's only going to be two Test matches.

Given that it is such a short series, does that hurt South Africa? They haven't played a Test since January and might take some time to get back into the swing of Test cricket.
I think so. I would have thought they would try to get some cricket into their key Test players, the likes of KallisBoucher and Smith. When Graeme Smith plays well, South Africa do well, and you can see he's probably been a little short of cricket at the moment. But it only takes one innings for Graeme to click; sometimes it only takes one shot.

Smith is part of a formidable batting line-up, although AB de Villiers could miss out due to injury. Who do you believe will make up the South African top six?
South Africa have a very settled top order. Whether or not they pick Jacques Rudolph is going to be interesting, because there is a spot open with AB de Villiers being injured. I expect them to go with Smith, Alviro Peterson, Hashim Amla, Jacques Kallis, and then two of Rudolph, Ashwell Prince and JP Duminy. Rudolph has had an unbelievable start to the domestic season, so I think he will definitely come into the mix.

Ashwell Prince hasn't made a Test hundred since Australia last visited South Africa. Is he under pressure to hold his spot?
I think he might be, but Ashwell is a tough customer. In a Test match, I would always have Ashwell Prince in my side because he is a tough nut. He gets stuck in. He's a very, very good Test match player - an underrated Test player, to be honest.

The other experienced player who could face pressure to hold his spot is Mark Boucher. Do you believe he has a year or two of Test cricket left in him?
In Test cricket, he might have a year or two left. Boucher is another guy who I would always have in my team, just because of the attitude he brings to the side. He is also a tough character, and you want those tough characters in Test cricket.

South Africa haven't won a Test series at home since beating Bangladesh in late 2008. They are still ranked No. 2 in the world but could they start to go on the wane in the near future?
I don't think so. I think they're a pretty settled team now. It's almost the team that Graeme and I started. Those guys have become mature cricketers now - I'm thinking of the likes of Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel, Ashwell Prince, Hashim Amla, AB de Villiers. Those guys are now all really battle-hardened cricketers who are all really good players in their own right. I think there is still a lot of cricket left in that particular team.

That Smith-Arthur era really peaked with the series win in Australia in 2008-09. What were your memories of those Tests?
It was fantastic. Certainly one of my happiest times with the national team was the series win in Australia. It was the culmination of a lot of hard work and of bringing a team up. We became No. 1 in the world when we won in Australia. That was our goal. The chase in Perth was unbelievably special, but day three in Melbourne was certainly a day that will live with me forever. We arrived at the ground thinking that we would bowl pretty soon. I had a team talk to the boys and said if we could get to being 90 behind and bat one more session, we would have done really well. Batting the whole day and getting a good lead, JP Duminy in partnership with Paul Harris and Dale Steyn - that is something that will always stick with me.

"I saw Cummins last year when we played a Shield game at the SCG at the end of the year. Marcus North got a hundred and walked off and said that it was the most sustained fast bowling he had faced since Test cricket"

Duminy was wonderful in that series but hasn't been in the Test side for 18 months now. Do you think he can be that batsman again?
Yes, he can, and he will come back. He's a really good player. It's so different when you come into the side as a young gun trying to make your mark. He came in and did that so well for us, but the expectation changes then. Suddenly you then become a guy with high expectations from media, from supporters, from sponsors - from everybody. You play with a different kind of attitude. I think he just has to get the balance right there.

You mentioned that Tahir could make his debut. What can we expect from South Africa's attack?
Steyn and Morkel are getting better and better. The key will be the third seamer if they want to play the legspinner. By all accounts it looks as though they will be playing Tahir instead of Paul Harris. Harris did a really good job for us at one time. He performed his role to unbelievable ability. He did everything that we wanted from him. He stopped the game for us. He allowed our strikers to come on and strike. But that attack changes when you have a legspinner, because the legspinner becomes a strike bowler and the third seamer has to become a workhorse. It will be interesting to see who they pick there; I suspect it will be Tsotsobe.

Tahir seems an aggressive and confident bowler. What do you make of him?
He is an aggressive bowler, always looking for wickets. He's a strike bowler. In between those major wicket-taking deliveries you'll get balls you can put away as well. So again, that's why the balance of the attack is so key.

What about Australia's attack? Would you play Pat Cummins?
I would play him. I think the best attack for Australia would be Cummins, Ryan Harris and Mitchell Johnson. They all offer something different. Then you can have Shane Watson and whichever spinner they decide to play. Pat Cummins has been fantastic. I think he should get a spot in the Test. If he's fit you've certainly got to play him. If you're good enough, you're old enough. I think he's going to be exceptional. He mixes it up, uses his variations. I saw him last year when we played a Shield game at the SCG at the end of the year. Marcus North got a hundred and walked off and said that it was the most sustained fast bowling he had faced since Test cricket. He changed his line of attack, he came around the wicket to Mitchell Marsh and Tom Beaton and roughed them up a bit. I thought he was very, very good.

During the 2008-09 series, Mitchell Johnson was brilliant. As his state coach you saw him take five-for in last week's Sheffield Shield game. Where is he compared to three years ago?
Mitch bowled extremely well for us in the Shield game here. He was excellent. He hit the deck hard, bowled at good pace, he swung the ball at times - I thought he was right where he needed to be. He likes bowling in South Africa as well. I think he'll bowl well there. The key with the ball for Australia is Mitchell Johnson. Australia thrive off Mitchell Johnson. When he bowls well, Australia do well. Mitch is in a very good headspace at the moment. The variation in that attack is so good. You'll have the tall quick bowler in Cummins, the left-armer in Mitch, and a guy who hits the deck hard and bustles in in Harris. I think that's a really good combination.

What are the key points for both teams in this Test series?
The most important thing for South Africa, with the bat, is for Smith to fire. When he plays well, South Africa play well. With the ball for South Africa, Dale Steyn is key. He's the wicket-taker of note. For Australia, the key with the ball is Mitchell Johnson, and with the bat it has got to be Ricky Ponting. Having watched him over four days here in the Sheffield Shield match last week, he looked in very good touch.

Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo