Australians get hostile initiation despite win
South Africa A have played their part in softening Australia up ahead of the two-Test series against the senior side next week. Although Australia won the four-day tour match in Potchefstroom with more than a day to spare, their batsmen did not have maximum time in the middle on a lively pitch, which offered plenty of assistance to the bowlers.
"We don't want a red carpet rolled out with a white wicket and teams come and bat for three days," Vincent Barnes, South Africa High Performance and A team coach, said. "That's why we batted first. The wicket looked a bit sporty but we felt we wanted to bat twice and give them [Australia] as little time as possible in the middle so they leave here a bit undercooked."
Australia's quicks, particularly Mitchell Johnson and Peter Siddle, enjoyed the seamer-friendly pitch, which saw them bowl South Africa A out for 183 before tea on the first day. In a low-scoring match, Australia were then dismissed for 236 and no team was able to score more than 264 in an innings.
Thirteen wickets fell on both the first and second day before the pitch flattened and dried on the third, with Australia getting the easier batting conditions as they neared victory. South Africa A were not too disappointed by their defeat, saying the manner in which it was achieved will probably give the country a headstart in the psychological battle.
"We didn't want them to take as much as they could out of the game," Barnes said. "One or two of them are still walking around thinking 'I haven't really had good preparation in this game,' especially a guy like Ponting." Ponting scored 31 runs in the match and did not have enough time to play himself in or enjoy a decent knock.
Far from being hospitable hosts, the South Africa A side were openly hostile in the field. The South African fielders were not short of a word throughout Australia's chase and made it clear that the battle lines had been drawn, even though the series is a shortened, two-match one.
"That's our responsibility; to make sure these guys go into the Test series feeling a bit underdone," Alviro Petersen, South Africa A captain, said, "We wanted to make sure that they know playing in South Africa is going to be hard work."
Petersen, who was dropped from the Test squad to make room for Jacques Rudolph, grafted out 103 in tough conditions and had some advice to pass on to the national batsmen. "Their bowlers, when they get a bit tired, it's easier to score off them," he said. "They also don't have a world class spinner, although the spinner that they do have, there's something there."
Barnes was more bullish about South Africa's ability to handle the Australian attack. "We are in a better position against their bowlers," he said, adding that the key match-up in the Test series will be between both team's pace bowlers and that South Africa have the edge. "Our bowlers are better in our conditions and I believe our batters can handle their attack."
Mitchell Johnson, who finished the match with nine-wickets and resumed a profitable relationship with South African pitches, was identified as the biggest threat. "He can change a game in one session, he showed it here this morning" Petersen said. Johnson ripped through South Africa's tail with three wickets in five overs in the first hour and Petersen felt he was probably the leading bowler for Australia at this stage.
While South Africa A saw their main task as sizing up the opposition ahead of an important Test series, Barnes described their role a "two-fold," with their second component to analyse the resources in the country. "It showed us that the cupboards are not bare," Barnes said.
He was particularly heartened by the bowling options he saw, with 21-year-old Marchant de Lange stealing the headlines with his five-for in Australia's first innings. "Marchant has come and bowled unbelievably well. He's got a long way to go and a lot to learn but he showed us that there is something there," Barnes said. "He just pulled Wayne Parnell with him. That's the best I've seen Wayne bowl in first-class cricket." Parnell was aggressive and used the bouncer to good effect. He has been seen as an outside contender for the Test squad, having never completed a full season of first-class cricket in South Africa, because of his international commitments.
Vernon Philander, who has been included in the Test squad, is, according to Barnes "ready to play." Philander will compete with Lonwabo Tsotsobe for the third seamers' spot and Barnes expects it to be tough for the selectors to choose between them, especially since Philander has taken 80 wickets in the previous two seasons of first-class cricket.
"Vern is a highly skillful bowler. If there's anything in the wicket, he is going to exploit it. He also has added advantage of batting," Barnes said. With the first Test at Newlands, Philander's hunting ground, Barnes said he won't be surprised to see Philander get his first cap. "You might want to use somebody who has played there for most of his career."
Barnes also had a compliment for Petersen, who has handled his rejection with classy composure. "That's one of the better 100s I've seen in a while under the conditions and the bowling," he said. Petersen, on the other hand, chose not to dwell on being dropped. "I think Jacques Rudolph played really well in the last year or two and I think he deserves his call up," he said. "I was just the unfortunate one to be left out."
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent