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February 9, 2014
South Africa's quicks at Centurion
As Australia's touring party wrestled with the changes to be forced by Shane Watson's absence from the Test team, they also had cause to glance furtively at another obstacle looming in the distance. To win a three-match series, a strong result in the first encounter is close to non-negotiable, and over two decades the task of doing so against South Africa at SuperSport Park has proven near enough to impossible.
In 18 Tests since its debut in a draw with England in 1995, Centurion has witnessed 14 victories for the hosts, three draws and only one defeat, to Nasser Hussain's tourists in 2000. That this lone loss was a result contrived by Hansie Cronje for reasons other than "making a game of it" says much for how strong South Africa's hold has been, bearing comparison with Australia's supreme record at the Gabba over the same period.
Much like Brisbane's tendency to catch under-prepared touring teams on a surface offering pace, bounce and movement to Australia's fast men, Centurion has been characterised by the dominance of South Africa's quicks in the rarefied air of the Highveld. Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander would not choose to bowl anywhere else.
There are few happy memories for Australia, either. The one Test match they have played at the ground was a dead rubber in 1997, after Mark Taylor's team had won by a wide margin in Johannesburg and a breathlessly narrow one in Port Elizabeth. Allan Donald and Brett Schulz dominated, Australia's batsmen wilted, and Ian Healy was suspended for throwing his bat in reaction to a questionable caught behind dismissal.
On a tour where Michael Clarke's team has already coped with plenty of adversity, whether it be through injury or poor weather, the challenge of overturning the hosts on their happiest of hunting grounds will be a tall one. The opening batsman Chris Rogers, likely to bear the brunt of South Africa's pace barrage, has taken note of the ground's history, but also of his team's buoyant mood.
"We haven't really focused on that particular arena, but we've spoken about other things and we've still got a couple of meetings to go. So I'm sure we'll talk about that," he said. "I've heard these things as well, it will be a big challenge no doubt but one that I think we are ready for.
"Something we've really spoken about this whole trip so far - we've been flooded out of one place and conditions have been a bit difficult in others. But we've kept talking about how we've got to make the most of every opportunity and I think we are. And we're still enjoying it, the guys are still having a laugh and having fun so I think that's going to count."
Any residual feelings of comfort left by his strong conclusion to the Ashes have been kicked out of Rogers by a succession of white-knuckle net sessions. His chest guard has received a considerable pummelling, and first ball in centre-wicket practice at the Wanderers on Saturday a Mitchell Johnson throat ball singed the grille of his helmet.
"That was tough, hopefully it doesn't come any tougher than that, because if it does I'm in trouble," Rogers said with a rueful grin. "But it was a good challenge and sometimes you get a bit worried that one's going to kick at you or something like that, but that's part of the challenge as well, and then you can be happy for the rest of the session.
"I know their attack is going to come hard as well, so I'm expecting plenty of short balls and good pace and good swing as well. There's been some late swing and that's going to make it interesting. I think both batting sides are going to have their work cut out for them but that's part and parcel of Test cricket. Whoever bats the best is going to be in line to win this Test."
To this end the loss of Watson, a batsman capable of dominating the best attacks when he does not allow his front pad to become too prominent, will be felt most keenly. He had been slated to move down the order to No. 6, and his likely replacement would appear to be Phillip Hughes. The inclusion of Hughes and the No. 3-elect Alex Doolan will make for a batting line-up markedly different from the one that stuttered against England.
Moises Henriques and a fresh-off-the-plane Shaun Marsh are the other options for Darren Lehmann and John Inverarity to consider, but neither has been exposed to the best of Australia's bowling in training quite so much as Doolan or Hughes. It would be a considerable departure from early tour planning were either to play, but then Watson has already forced one by his unavailability.
"That throws a bit of a spanner in the works for us, he's been an important player in our side of late, so that's going to cause a few changes but we have to adapt," Rogers said. "Obviously his batting is important to us, but then he can give us a few overs and he catches them at first slip. So that means he's an integral part of our side.
"These things happen and you have to move on quickly, so bad luck to Shane, but whoever comes in hopefully they can do a good job. I think we have good momentum, there's a good feeling among the group and that's going to be important going into this Test. The loss of Shane is going to hurt but I still think there's enough quality in the rest of the side to really perform in this first Test."
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets hereFeeds: Daniel Brettig
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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