November 8, 2012

All eyes on the batsmen

Australia and South Africa have formidable pace attacks, so it will probably be those who perform best against those bowlers who will decide the series

So relevant is cricket to the rhythm of Australian life that the current players now welcome passengers aboard Qantas flights and help the captain guide them through the safety procedures. "Morning captain," says the flight captain in the initial video exchange. "Morning captain," replies Michael Clarke, wide grin set firm beneath the fabled baggy green cap.

Then the boys file through the cabin in their kit, applauded by other passengers, sprinkled about the aircraft like extras in a Mel Brooks movie. Ricky Ponting does most of the instructional stuff: "Ensure your belt is secure and tight", or whatever it exactly is that they say, "and that your seat is in the upright position for take off." Even Peter Siddle has a line or two. It is a long time since the legend of Rod Marsh skulling 50 beers on the flight to England, and nearly as long since David Boon is supposed to have matched him. "Fly with XXXX, folks, and fasten them belts. Oh, and smoking is encouraged on the flight at all times." It was a very different world back then.

With no sign of a T20 apple in anyone's eye, Test cricket was the pantheon for every boyhood dream. Gratifyingly, the usual frisson to the start of an Australian summer remains to this day. Attention has moved away from the various football codes to the Gabba in Brisbane, and interest in the touring South Africans suggests a good period ahead for the oldest form of international cricket competition. Not that either side is especially well prepared. September and October have been the months of T20 plenty, and the idea of Ed Cowan or Alviro Petersen grinding it out to the lunch break with 25 on the board is not everyone's swig of Gatorade.

But it is the batsmen who will almost certainly decide the series, and some anchors need to be dropped on a lively pitch against two attacks so dominated by fast bowling. The South Africans have the edge, though it is a big call from Allan Donald to nominate it the best his country have ever put on the park. Certainly, South Africa outbowled England at The Oval in late July and went on to take the series, but Headingley and Lord's were more evenly matched affairs.

The Dale Steyn-Morne Morkel threat is well established but Vernon Philander caused the English batsmen all manner of trouble by consistently hitting the seam around off stump. It was as if Philander had spent a life studying Glenn McGrath and Shaun Pollock, so simple was the method of his success. The Australians saw something of this late last year when Philander made his debut against them, and he is a better bowler now than then. Neither should Jacques Kallis be taken lightly. Encouraged by Gary Kirsten to attack in shorter and sharper spells, Kallis has recovered his old wicket-taking knack, often with intelligent use of a quick bouncer that is the product of an immensely strong upper body.

Neither side is especially well prepared. September and October have been the months of T20 plenty, and the idea of Ed Cowan or Alviro Petersen grinding it out to the lunch break with 25 on the board is not everyone's swig of Gatorade

Cowan must set himself to blunt the new ball and thus give some rein to the adventure around him. Both David Warner and Rob Quiney will play their shots, which is no bad thing if sensibly considered. Of course, Shane Watson is a terrible loss. Injuries torture this man and make the pursuit of a settled batting near-impossible for the Australian selectors. Ponting, Clarke and Michael Hussey are the engine room in the middle order, and as the years advance, the less they see of the new ball the better. The series will hang upon these skirmishes between African speedsters and Aussie willow wielders.

Graeme Smith's No. 1-ranked team comes without the usual bench strength. Rory Kleinveldt is preferred to Lonwabo Tsotsobe and the injured Marchant de Lange among fast men, while there is no specialist batsman in reserve. This is the way of modern whistle-stop tours. Replacements can be transferred from home overnight. Morkel has barely bowled a ball in anger since leaving British soil in early September. The others have had a diet of one- and two-over spells in the game's shortest format, a kind of bowling detox. The Gabba is not a place at which to be undernourished. It has a pitch that exposes the meek. Each session offers the chance for an advantage. The team most ready and most eager will be the one to profit.

Australia have an edge in the small amount of first-class cricket they have played. Of late and for example, Ponting had unbeaten scores of 162 and 60 for Tasmania against a strong Victoria attack. That was a good week for the Sheffield Shield competition, a reminder of the heartbeat of Australian cricket. The round of matches that took place this last weekend was less good. The pitches were seam bowler-friendly and runs were hard to find. Worse, the Test players were removed from the fourth day's play - or would have been, if there was one - in order to train with the national team, a move that diminished the competition and compromised the players left behind.

Six years ago England were ridiculed for treating the warm-up matches against the states as just that, warm-ups. Andrew Flintoff's team insisted on three-day, rather than four-day, games and 12 a side against NSW. They arrived at the Gabba lacking the sharpness gained from playing proper matches and ultimately were embarrassed not to have paid greater respect to the states. On Monday of this week, Clarke looked embarrassed when he had to explain why a replacement was allowed for Ponting but not for Watson at the weekend after both players suffered hamstring injuries. He also agreed that the general situation in which players were replaced to satisfy the demands of the national team was not ideal; the situation lacked clarity. This was odd, to say the least, and probably reflected a hiccup in the long chain of command.

No worries, Clarke is too smart to let such a moment divert his path and he wants this one badly. He is under no illusions. Four years ago South Africa won in Australia for the first time. It had been 16 years since the home team had been beaten on their own patch. Since then, England too have won here. It is not an easy thing to do but the ramparts have been breached. As history will show, the team that bats best, bowls best and holds on to its catches usually prevails. No amount of modernisation to the game of cricket will change that.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK