Graeme Smith praises 'experienced' newcomers
Two hours of careless shot selection cost Australia the Newlands Test and a chance to set up a series win, but it may not serve as an accurate indication for how they match up against South Africa in the second game at the Wanderers.
Graeme Smith, the South Africa captain, has said the balance between the two sides is "probably even", with both in a state of transition, although South Africa's appears to have progressed further. The real difference between the two sides may lie in the experience of their new players.
"We've got certain areas that have been more consistent over a period of time but we've also got some new faces," Smith said.
South Africa's two debutants, Imran Tahir and Vernon Philander, have played over 200 first-class matches between them. Australia's young bowlers, Patrick Cummins and Trent Copeland have not even played 30. South Africa's top six have each played a minimum of 36 Tests. Two of Australia's, Phillip Hughes and Usman Khawaja, have not yet played 20 Tests between them.
Smith said the value of years in the first-class game is sometimes unimportant but, when it does play a role, it can be crucial.
"You get guys that come in at 21 or 22 and are able to handle it and perform well from the start. It depends on the make- up of the person and what they've been exposed to, in terms of their cricket," Smith said. "Vern took a bit of time to regroup after the first time he was picked. He is probably a much stronger personality now than he was then."
With Patrick Cummins likely to become Australia's second-youngest debutant in their Test history, Smith said it's an exciting time for the 18-year old, but could turn into a tough one.
"He's got a lot of potential" Smith said. "But if things don't go well he probably doesn't have a lot to fall back on in terms of experience and know where to go from there. That's the challenge of a youngster, when you are under pressure, where do you go from there?"
Philander, whose performances in the last two seasons of first-class cricket made him an automatic choice for the starting XI, showed that he had a Plan B. When he tried to bounce Ricky Ponting, and was promptly dispatched, he immediately switched to a fuller length. That probably led to Smith handing Philander the new-ball and opting away from the Steyn-Morkel combination that became known as the most feared in Test cricket. South Africa now have the luxury of choice, with three frontline seamers who can open the bowling, and Smith said he will use them according to what the circumstances dictate.
"The new ball was not taken away from Morne, it was more a tactical decision in how I felt the wicket was going to play. I thought Vernon would get the most benefit out of the new ball in terms of the style that he has," Smith said. "Morne was really good in the second innings. He opened up that middle order for us in knocking over Michael Hussey. The competition amongst them is really good."
Morkel, Philander, Steyn and Tahir were four of the eight players who attended the optional net session on Wednesday, with the batsmen who did not get much time in the middle, like Ashwell Prince, Mark Boucher and Jacques Rudolph also in attendance.
"There was a real focus and a really good intensity," Smith said. "We have to build on the things we did well. On day two and three [of the Newlands Test] our cricket really improved from what it was on day one. We were consistent in the areas we wanted to control. The areas that we hit and the pressure we created was far better than in the first innings."
A win at the Wanderers will see South Africa achieve something they have not managed to do since readmission - beat Australia in a series at home. Bowling coach Allan Donald described it as "the pinnacle," and the start of what he hopes will be South Africa's ascendency to Test dominance. Smith said South Africa are not looking too far ahead and although they will relish victory, it will be not be what defines their summer.
"A lot of the players have won a series in Australia so for us, I wouldn't say it's the pinnacle but it's something we really want to achieve," Smith said. "I wouldn't say it's the biggest thing in our lives. Allan endured tough times touring Australia and playing Australia in their prime and obviously it means a lot to him. If we can provide him with that series victory that will be great."
An eight-wicket victory in less than two-and-a-half days usually suggests that the gulf between two teams is as wide as it is deep, but cricket is a sport where scorecards are not the best storytellers. This series could end by revealing that in terms of cricketing talent, team make-up, big-match temperament and closing out a game, there is little to choose between South Africa and Australia.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent