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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • A on December 2, 2012, 23:11 GMT

    Mark Nicholas - you may wax lyrically.... but Steyn just steamrolled the Aussies .. poor Michael Clarke got a delivery in Perth befitting of his batting ability .. again, true cricket to the highest degree ..

  • Dummy4 on November 30, 2012, 12:34 GMT

    Had a lot of respect for Mark Nicholas...but was shocked today when he described India win in Perth few years back as a 'fluke' and as a result of the monkey gate scandal. Then he went on to belittle R.P Singh ...the man of the match for that win. Infact India played great cricket through out that series...was unfortunate to lose the sydney test because of shocking umpiring decisions of one Steve Bucknor. Get your facts right Mr Mark Nicolas.

  • Tim on November 30, 2012, 12:10 GMT

    I can just imagine what Siddle, Hilf and Patto must be screaming at the new bowlers in this test "We loosened them for you!"

  • Santosh on November 30, 2012, 11:54 GMT

    If RSA can get 50 run lead then we have a great match on our hands. Ricky is a legend indeed but his career would have been done last season if India would not have toured Australia. It's the Indian bowling which brought Ponting into some form. You could look at the stats before and after India series Ponting has nothing to show. Even B'desh would have given Ponting a good run for his money.

  • Callum on November 30, 2012, 0:37 GMT

    A brilliant article, which is hopefully prelude to a brilliant test match! An Englishman, staying up for the 2:30am GMT start shows how wonderful a series this has been.

  • Duncan on November 30, 2012, 0:27 GMT

    The difference between the teams has been Clarke. Without his contribution, even half his contribution, the teams have been pretty even. SA's big batsmen have not really fired and neither have their bowlers. On the other hand Australia can feel pretty good with their batsmen and bowlers.

  • Cain on November 29, 2012, 23:54 GMT

    @Andre117 agree completely. On paper, SA should have beaten us in the first two Tests. They have the number 1 billing and a reputation to uphold and yet have not been able to kill Australia off. This game will be fascinating to watch, but unfortunately for Punter, I fear that his last Test will be a losing one. The selectors have done him no favours with the quality (or lack thereof) of the guys who have been brought in. Starc - limited overs form bowler; Johnson - streaky bowler who can be fantastic but those days are few and far between and long gone; Hastings and Hazelwood - both debutants and both clearly not up to Test standard based on career and current season stats. The selectors will have to answer for a lot if we lose this Test. I do not think there is 20 wickets in these guys to win it.

  • Dummy4 on November 29, 2012, 23:39 GMT

    If South Africa goes into yet another Test match in Australia without a spinner, I will renounce my supporter's card for the next week. Absolutely idiotic. I can't believe it's even being considered.

  • Jeff on November 29, 2012, 20:54 GMT

    "Oddly, neither country has all-rounders knocking on the door." While I don't know enough about the SA domestic competition, I'd suggest there are a number of talented all-rounders just a whisper away from a call-up: Butterworth, Henriques, McDonald are all centurions with bowling averages well under 30 (and under 25 in Butterworth's case). And there is the likes of Faulkner, Coulter-Nile and Cutting. Seems like a pretty rich field of talent there. Regardless, I want to thank Mark Nicholas for bringing a fresh perspective - and an immense and diverse talent - to cricket commentary. I'm a huge fan.

  • Dummy4 on November 29, 2012, 17:09 GMT

    Now that's how to set up a match! Kudos MCJ!

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