An incomplete heavyweight bout
South Africa v Australia, November 9-13, Cape Town
Start time 1030 (0830 GMT)
Whoever heard of a heavyweight bout scheduled to be played over two rounds? Even before South Africa and Australia begin the first Test in Cape Town, the abiding sentiment among the two teams is that the series they are about to play in will be an incomplete contest. The series was squeezed to two matches from the original three by the Champions League Twenty20 and South Africa's desire to play T20 internationals in addition to ODIs. With all this in mind, the players' best avenue to ensuring future series are played over three matches is to make sure the cricket played in these two is vibrant, undulating, and tough.
Fortunately South Africa and Australia have a history of providing exactly that over 18 years since they resumed Test match combat in 1993-94. Australia have won a majority of the series between the two sides, but South Africa have also landed plenty of blows, not least in 2008 when they became the first team to win a series in Australia since 1993. Australia responded by winning the return series in 2009, with a formula not dissimilar to the one that will be utilised this time. As in 2009, Australia will enter the series with a less impressive team on paper but a little more match hardness than their opponents, who have not played a Test since January. The agile captaincy of Australia's new leader Michael Clarke will provide another rich sub-plot.
At the top of the order, Phillip Hughes will want to emulate his memorable debut in that series, though mindful that South Africa' bowlers now have a far better idea of how to bowl to him. Shane Watson and Ricky Ponting will also want runs after a quiet series in Sri Lanka, while Shaun Marsh can stamp himself firmly on the No. 3 spot by performing with similar assurance to that he showed on the subcontinent. With the ball Ryan Harris and Mitchell Johnson appear an ideal duo for Clarke to attack with, but questions remain over how they will be augmented, with the energy of Peter Siddle competing against the sly mediums of Trent Copeland. Nathan Lyon has a mid-term mortgage on the spinner's spot, provided he can keep contributing.
South Africa have made one significant change, recalling Jacques Rudolph, and are likely to make another by handing spin duties to the legspinner Imran Tahir. His inclusion gives the South Africans arguably the most complete attack they have had since rejoining Test cricket, as an accomplished, attacking spin bowler rather than the finger-spinning fighters - Paul Harris, Nicky Boje and Pat Symcox to name three - before him. Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel have been warming up for the contest, adamant they will not allow Hughes in particular the sort of latitude he had two years ago. Ponting and Clarke will also be in their sights, though greater fireworks may be seen on Johannesburg's livelier pitch in the second Test.
South Africa: DLWDD
In the spotlight
Graeme Smith gave up the ODI and T20 captaincy to give himself more room to concentrate on Tests, and after an extended break now is his time to make good on that promise. Runs at the top of the order, in a series when the bowlers on both sides are fresh and in decent rhythm on what are expected to be helpful pitches, will be sought after, and Smith will have the added requirement of shepherding a new opening partner. As a leader, Smith will be up against an opposite number in Michael Clarke, who has only led his country in four Tests but has already showed enormous natural flair for the role, and who will endeavour to make his opposite number look flat-footed in terms of tactics, much as he did to Tillakaratne Dilshan in Sri Lanka.
Ricky Ponting isn't one for reading too many stories about himself, which this week is just as well. There have been plenty of questioning pieces written about Ponting, suggesting he is in the twilight of a Test career that has spanned 15 years and has now gone beyond the captaincy, something no Australian captain has done at length in the past 30 years. His batting mechanics remain sound enough, but Ponting's once faultless shot selection and concentration remains in the clouded zone it occupied during the final months of his captaincy. A long innings could bring it all back, but a few more short ones could bring it all crashing down.
Pitch and conditions
Cape Town's surface has been the subject of much theorising so far, and early inspection revealed a pitch that offered hope to both the pace bowlers via plenty of grass, but also the spinners thanks to a prominent bare patch at one end. Some rain is forecast for the opening day, but sunnier skies are predicted thereafter.
Doubt about AB de Villiers' readiness after a broken digit has ebbed away, leaving the South African side reasonably settled. Tahir is expected to come in for his Test debut at the expense of Harris, and if he does, there could be a toss-up between Vernon Philander and Lonwabo Tsotsobe. Rudolph will make his return to the Test team at the top of the batting order.
South Africa (probable): 1 Graeme Smith (capt), 2 Jacques Rudolph, 3 Hashim Amla, 4 Jacques Kallis, 5 AB de Villiers, 6 Ashwell Prince, 7 Mark Boucher (wk), 8 Imran Tahir, 9 Dale Steyn, 10 Morne Morkel, 11 Lonwabo Tsotsobe.
Australia's only major questions surround the shape of the bowling attack, with Siddle and Copeland duelling for the third seamer's spot behind Ryan Harris and Mitchell Johnson. Siddle's good rhythm and fuller length in recent times, added to his solid record in South Africa in 2009, is likely to give him the edge over the ultra reliable but less pacey Copeland.
Australia (probable): 1 Shane Watson, 2 Phillip Hughes, 3 Shaun Marsh, 4 Ricky Ponting, 5 Michael Clarke (capt), 6 Michael Hussey, 7 Brad Haddin (wk), 8 Mitchell Johnson, 9 Ryan Harris, 10 Peter Siddle, 11 Nathan Lyon
Stats & trivia
- South Africa's last Test match was also in Cape Town, against India in the first week of January, a gap of some 305 days.
- Australia have not lost a Test series in South Africa since the South Africans were re-admitted to international cricket. A 1-1 draw in 1994 was followed by 2-1 wins in 1997 and 2002, a 3-0 victory in 2006 and another 2-1 win in 2009.
- In Cape Town, Australia have won three of the four Tests at Newlands since 1994.
"The hard thing about Test cricket is maintaining that pressure and intensity the whole time. The more Test cricket you have as a base, you can maintain that pressure and intensity for longer periods."
Australia batsman Michael Hussey believes Australia enter the match hardened after a series win in Sri Lanka
"It's not about the pretty cover drive. You're not going to get too many chances to hit one of those. It's definitely a mental battle."
South Africa batsman Ashwell Prince on the tough nature of contests against Australia
"Newlands at this time of the year is a little bit of an unknown. I haven't played too many Tests at this time of the year. The wicket will be a bit different to what we are used to. So far this season, the wickets haven't been the easiest to bat on. Through the three one-dayers, you saw that no batsmen really got a grasp on things and I expect it to be pretty similar."
South Africa captain Graeme Smith is cautious about the batting conditions
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo