November 29, 2012

Just how much did Adelaide take out of Australia?

The two teams are evenly matched, but South Africa will struggle to get their balance sorted and Australia their fast bowlers' energy

Not only is it exciting that Australia and South Africa go head to head tomorrow in Perth to decide this three-Test series, it is apt. These are countries wedded to the culture of sport, places of wide open spaces, hot sun and uncomplicated values. Sport is healthy, sport is gracious, mainly, and sport is good. You play, you have a beer, you talk nonsense, you make mates. Then you run out of years and stop the playing. The mates, the beer and the bullshit are there forever. When Ian Chappell said G'day to Mike Procter in Brisbane, you would think they had broken bread the previous evening. In fact, it had been some years since the last encounter.

They had fun during one of the tea breaks at the Gabba, appearing together on Channel 9 to choose the greatest allrounders of the modern age. Garry Sobers and Jacques Kallis were shoo-ins. Imran Khan, Keith Miller and Ian Botham got the other slots. Richard Hadlee, Kapil Dev and Shaun Pollock were close by; Chris Cairns, Tony Greig and Andrew Flintoff well worthy of mention. Richie Benaud was first to 2000 runs and 200 wickets; Daniel Vettori is another spinner to have crossed the divide with colours. It is a subjective thing and not written to provoke. Listening to them, one could not help but wonder if Procter was turning back time, wishing, and wishing again for sliding doors.

Oddly, neither country has allrounders knocking at the door. This must be a cyclical thing because the modern game is made for them. Life after Kallis will be an eye-opener for South Africans. Shane Watson is close to cracking the code but the injuries that pursue him may reflect nature's response to modern schedules. When the demands are in three different formats and almost exclusively on the field of international competition, the body may well be saying, enough now, enough.

Watson is back tomorrow and will probably bowl, which gives the Australians an edge. Kallis, assuming he plays, will not. Both teams want six batsmen, a wicketkeeper and four specialist bowlers. Thus, South Africa have a greater conundrum of balance than Australia. Vernon Philander is fit and Imran Tahir will be dropped. Robin Petersen is a chance but Rory Kleinveldt is the marginal favourite for that last spot. Perhaps it will not be long before the gloves are taken from AB de Villiers and handed to Thami Tsolekile. De Villiers insists he is up for it but the degeneration of his batting is marked and of concern. His mind appears slow, as if distracted, and his footwork is proof. Brilliant hands and a still head are part of the art of batting, but not all of it. Even the mighty Adam Gilchrist remained at No. 7 when his talent so obviously required promotion. Only stumpers themselves truly know the strain of their work.

The key for the South Africans is Dale Steyn. There has been little of the African bush about him - more pussycat than big cat. When Graeme Smith says his team has not been at its best, he surely means Steyn. The WACA's hard pitch will suit him, so Smith must find bait. Short spells with the breeze, dovetailing with Morne Morkel, can work well in Perth, particularly as Philander is an ideal foil into the fabled Fremantle doctor that stirs during the afternoon. In Perth, nature forces the sectorial hand.

The key for Australia is mindset. Just how much did Adelaide take out of the players? The physical issues are apparent and treatable, the mental ones less obvious and, thus, more complex. Mo Farah's great achievement at the London Olympics was to do it all again a week later - 10,000 metres and 5000 metres, two golds in one week. Incredible. The Australian conundrum is that Peter Siddle and Ben Hilfenhaus may have to bowl on Friday morning, four days after a distressing and failed mission. Will they be flat? If they pull up okay on Friday, will they last till Tuesday? Fascinating. Can Michael Clarke risk both? Surely not. And this is make or break, a one-off. Given that, is Mitchell Johnson, the wizard of Perth, a sudden trump card? Maybe.

Then there is the Ricky Ponting question to consider. Is he distracted by the final curtain? Adelaide rose to him as he walked out to bat - the start of his first innings - much as they have done in the past when appreciating the end of one. Was this goodbye? How could he help but not think so. Then he sees the replays of the two dismissals, again and again, and he thinks it must have been and he wonders if the crowd is right and he is wrong. He must think this. It is unavoidable. And it is riveting.

Imagine for a minute that there is a World Test Championship and that this is the final, the Million Dollar Match. It is a perfect conception. Australia and South Africa in a winner-take-all prize fight at the WACA - with its bright light, fast pitch and full house. For all the variables and the unknowns, the insecurities, the vulnerabilities, the fatigue, the form or otherwise and the attention, the players should consider only one thing. If they think they can or they think they can't, they are probably right.

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

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