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February 28, 2009
In these days of climate change and ozone depletion it has become a badge of honour to be labelled as green. That's also how Australia's bowling attack has been described lately. It hasn't been meant as a compliment. If the third day at the Wanderers is anything to go by, their green tinge might not be such a bad thing.
Australia came into the match with three genuine fast bowlers, a medium-pace allrounder and a part-time offspinner. Between the five of them they had played 23 Tests and Mitchell Johnson alone was responsible for 18 of those. Against an experienced and in-form batting line-up that had taught some lessons to a more practiced group in Australia, it was a bowling unit with an awful lot to prove.
That they dismissed South Africa for 220 was a terrific achievement. Yes, it was just one innings and yes, the conditions were especially helpful and no, they might not repeat the effort every time. But for now that doesn't matter. This was the same surface on which South Africa's powerful attack had bowled too short and allowed Australia to rack up 466.
More than simply the final result it was the unbending enthusiasm and control that Australia's bowlers displayed that was most encouraging. Ricky Ponting was reluctant to use Andrew McDonald and on the third day didn't employ him until nearly an hour after lunch. Marcus North sent down only seven overs for the innings.
It meant a heavy load for three young fast men. Johnson has shown himself to be a quality Test bowler but has been forced to become the spearhead in the absence of the injured Brett Lee. Peter Siddle has displayed promising signs in his four previous Tests but is still learning at the top level. Nobody knew quite how the debutant Ben Hilfenhaus would step up.
All three responded well. Johnson took the responsibility of being the new-ball man after settling into the first-change role over the past year and collected 4 for 25 while giving the batsmen no latitude. Siddle fought back from a costly initial spell to grab three wickets and Hilfenhaus, although he only got one breakthrough, swung the ball wildly and built pressure with maiden after maiden.
"There's always the frustration of bowling good balls and there's always going to be a lot of plays and misses and getting frustrated with that," Siddle said. "You've just got to be patient and keep working the batsman over. Keep bowling well as a team and in the end you see the success, you get the ten wickets."
It's hard to believe that Siddle, who is playing his 19th first-class match, is the second-most experienced member of Australia's attack. Brett Lee and Stuart Clark will be available during the next few months and all Siddle and Hilfenhaus can do is perform as strongly as possible while the opportunity is there.
And strength is a key part of their game. During his first Test in Mohali, Siddle impressed the Australian camp because at the end of a long, hot day he was still as quick and fiery as in the morning. Hilfenhaus has the same quality, as he proved two years ago when he bowled nearly 200 more overs in a domestic first-class season than any other fast bowler in the country. Working hard in a three-man rotation system at the Wanderers was not a stretch.
The leader of their group, Johnson, is at the point in his Test career where by recent Australian standards he would be considered the greenhorn. He had a disappointing tour of the West Indies last year and by the end was in danger of losing his spot to Doug Bollinger, the one fast man in this touring party who is not in the XI. But this summer Johnson has gone from strength to strength, with ball and bat. Like Siddle and Hilfenhaus, he is an incredibly hard worker.
"Me and him are pretty close," Siddle said. "We enjoy just having a bit of fun with each other and getting each other going. It's always good to see him bowling well and going well. It just sort of pumps me up a little bit and I just jump on the ride with him and hopefully go well."
Today, at least, they did go well. There is a long way to go and more experienced men should return to the bowling unit in the next few months. But unlike climate change activists, this is one green group that is happy to be warming up.
Stats highlights from the fourth ODI between India and West Indies in Dharamsala