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As was the case in England last year, Australia will have to overcome the hiccups of their early days on tour. In Darren Lehmann, however, they have a mentor capable of invention
February 6, 2014
Darren Lehmann first took command of Australia on the very day the team gathered in Taunton for the start of the Ashes, having hurriedly accepted Cricket Australia's offer to replace Mickey Arthur as coach. During a subsequent tour match against Worcestershire he donned a baggy green and ran drinks to the team, a gesture of fun but also an indicator of how involved he wished to be.
Seven months on, and Lehmann has again been a late arrival to the tour, having shepherded the Twenty20 team to a series win over a bedraggled England. This time an element of chaos has been added to the tour by reasons of weather rather than a change of mentor, forcing the Australians out of their Potchefstroom training base and robbing them of a formal warm-up match.
Instead, they are to play a two-day intra-squad fixture in Johannesburg from Friday, and Lehmann will again find himself in the thick of things. Rather than running drinks, he will join the bowling coach Craig McDermott in monitoring the players' progress as makeshift umpires. From that vantage point they will deliberate on the readiness of the bowlers but more pointedly the batsmen - the man to replace George Bailey will be one of Alex Doolan or Phillip Hughes, neither having played a first-class match for more than a month.
"It's been tough, there's been no Shield games, but that's programming and we can't do anything about that," Lehmann said of the scratchy preparation for his fringe batsmen. "The Big Bash has been an unbelievable tournament for CA and the players, so we've just got to live with that. They've both been good, everyone has. I can't complain where they're going and both those guys will come into contention, so from our point of view they've just got to be ready to play.
"We're lucky enough that we've had obviously a long summer, so they've been playing and it's really about fine tuning on how to play against South Africa. We've moved past England, we've got to move forward and we're taking on the best team in the world at their home grounds.
"For us it's about winning away from home and we didn't do that much last year, and no team won away from home full stop last year. For us to get to where we want to, we have to start winning away from home."
Such a cursory preparation for a duel with the world's best team may be cause for alarm, yet it must also be said that Lehmann has enjoyed a far more immersive planning phase for this tour. He has helped select the squad, formulate strategies and identify roles for players. His support staff has been refined, losing Steve Rixon but gaining others. He has also established his chosen "brand" of cricket with Australia's players, and now wants to see if it can be applied as successfully on the road as it was at home.
The conditions in which they will try to play with the aggression and cohesion shown against England is a matter for some conjecture, and Lehmann is trying to balance the notions of steeling the batsmen for dicey tracks while also guarding against the snowball effect of preconceptions weighing down the minds of his players. The ground staff at Centurion Park have been slow in revealing their chosen strip, tired pitches alternating with those of a verdant green hue.
To that end, the fifth Ashes Test in Sydney may prove useful. Its capricious nature drew sharp criticism from Lehmann in the aftermath, but on day one forced a bold counter-attack by Brad Haddin and Steve Smith following the loss of early wickets. Anyone who saw Lehmann bat for South Australia at the Gabba or Yorkshire at Headingley will know his method on seaming pitches was to make sure he made swift runs, not bothering to wait patiently for the unplayable ball.
"It was a bit of get them before they get you sometimes," he said. "I think we played that way in Sydney to be perfectly honest, Smith and Haddin certainly took the game to England in that game, so from our point of view we've got to be really proactive if it's going to be like that.
"Blokes have been preparing for that, having a look at the wicket - I don't know which one it is at the moment. So that'll be the interesting thing over the next few days, to see which wicket we'll play on. I think with the weather around, and overcast, it'll be tough for the batters so we'll have to work out what our best XI is to win the Test and go from there."
Opposing Lehmann and Australia will be a South African side unbeaten in all Test series since Ricky Ponting's men surprised them at home in 2009. There is a conservatism to the hosts that Lehmann will hope to take advantage of, but he also noted they have it in them to accelerate at the appropriate moment. The 2012 Perth Test stands out as an example.
"They're the best team in the world. They're very aggressive, they can chop and change between styles. That's a sign of a good side," Lehmann observed. "We'll have to adapt well to their style. They can be aggressive, come at you really hard with the ball and with the bat as well, and then they can obviously settle in if you're on top. We'll have to work pretty hard against them."
Central to that mix of attack and defence is Graeme Smith, their longtime captain. He has been part of South Africa's side long enough that he and Lehmann played against one another, in some of the younger man's first international matches in 2002. At the time Lehmann was a senior pro and confidante for a new ODI captain in Ricky Ponting, while Smith would soon show his unwillingness to knuckle under Australian intimidation by speaking frankly about the sledging of Shane Warne, among others, in the earlier Test series.
If the specific revelations of on-field "banter" engendered some animosity from Australia at the time, Smith's career as a whole has generated a great deal of respect for him among the touring camp. Twelve years later, and Smith is seeking a first home series win over Australia with as much ferocity as Lehmann will be chasing his first Test series win on the road as coach.
"I do remember him getting me out actually at Port Elizabeth [in 2002]. He's been a great player for South Africa over many years," Lehmann said. "He had that ability from the first game, he's a strong character and very South African if you like. I think he's quite strong behind closed doors. He's done very well to captain for so long. For us we have to really, a bit like Alastair Cook, keep him quiet for the whole series."
As was the case in England last year, Australia will have to overcome the hiccups of their early days on tour. In Lehmann, however, they have a mentor capable of invention.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets hereFeeds: Daniel Brettig
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