Careers could be on the line after Wanderers
A tall, thin man has been loitering at Australia's training sessions in Johannesburg, hovering on the fringes and occasionally chatting with players. He casts a long shadow in every way. He is John Inverarity, the new national selector. And in a week's time, he will begin determining the fate of Australia's cricketers.
On the face of it, the Johannesburg Test for Australia is about levelling the series, about redeeming themselves after the three-day horror show in Cape Town. And that is important: Australia must win to avoid their fourth series loss to South Africa in the 109 years since the teams first met.
But the ramifications of this Test could be much more far-reaching. There are players whose careers could be on the line during this match. Within ten days of this Test finishing, the players will take the field at the Gabba to do battle with New Zealand.
It is a fascinating time. Will Inverarity's panel make the hard call on Ricky Ponting, who hasn't made a Test century since January 2010? If they do, will they make it immediately, ahead of the New Zealand series? Or will a hundred at the Wanderers save Ponting?
Will they persist with Brad Haddin, a major culprit in the Cape Town capitulation? Will they keep choosing Mitchell Johnson on the basis that he is occasionally a match-winner? What do they think of Phillip Hughes, a project of Andrew Hilditch's panel but a man whose home-baked technique makes him vulnerable to criticism?
On Tuesday, a most intriguing discussion was taking part in the middle of the Wanderers ground. The participants were Inverarity, soon to be the national selector but without a vote at the selection table for this Test; Hilditch, the acting chairman of selectors, who after this match is nothing but an Adelaide solicitor; Troy Cooley, the stand-in coach and temporary tour selector; and the captain Michael Clarke, the only constant in the group.
Usman Khawaja will replace the injured Shaun Marsh at the Wanderers and Pat Cummins could come in to make his debut but widespread changes are unlikely. They could come soon afterwards. It cannot be easy for the players to put aside questions over their own immediate futures, but Clarke believes they will manage.
"It's not about personal performances, everyone is in different positions in regards to if guys are playing for their spot or whatever guys are thinking mentally," Clarke said. "At the end of the day, it's not about individual performances, it's about this team having success. It was great to see at the first session, blokes are doing that, putting the team first."
The problem was that few men did that in Cape Town. Clarke's first-innings century and Marsh's accompanying innings were fine examples of batsmen playing not for personal pride but gritting their teeth and fighting for the team. Nobody did that in the second innings as Australia were bowled out for 47, their lowest total in 109 years.
"It's an important Test for us as a team for a little bit of redemption and to show our character and to show our desire to play for Australia," Clarke said. "There is nothing more important as a batsman than putting value on your wicket so that's my goal as a batter.
"I'm going to take things one ball at a time and back myself and play my way, but I will put a hell of a lot of value on my wicket because I don't want to give up easily without a fight. Our bowlers have to work hard to make sure they are disciplined in hitting their areas."
One man who didn't do that at Newlands was Johnson. At 30, Johnson is at the age where, if he is dropped in the near future, it will not be easy to fight back quickly. Clarke wants Johnson in the team as a potential match-winner, but every day that he fails to hit his straps, he essentially leaves Clarke a bowler short.
At the Wanderers in early 2009, Johnson collected eight wickets for the match and swung the ball enough in the early stages to put doubt in the minds of the batsmen. He bowled in a similar fashion in the tour match in Potchefstroom a fortnight ago and is expected to play in Johannesburg despite an almost wicketless performance in Cape Town.
"I'm full of praise for Mitchy," Clarke said. "I've said for a long time, he's an unbelievable athlete. He's got potential ... well, potential is not the right word. He's played for long enough. His statistics show how good a bowler he is. He's scored a Test match hundred. He's one hell of a player, but we need him to be at his best."
And if he's not, Inverarity will be watching.
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo