Australia in South Africa 2013-14 February 9, 2014

Tourists confront fortress Centurion

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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 here

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  • dummy4fb on February 11, 2014, 1:41 GMT

    NixNixon, you're kidding yourself. Australia drew the first two tests in Australia last time the two teams met, and were unlucky not to win 2-1. They will not get Destroyed. They may lose two, or even three tests, but they will play a brand of cricket which allows them the chance of victory. Don't be surprised if Australia shock us like they did in the summer!

  • Greatest_Game on February 10, 2014, 18:00 GMT

    Ohhh nooooo! The word "Fortress" in the title of a pre series article is really really unlucky! Bad voodoo. It makes Nelson (111) look lucky!

    Back in May 2012, Mark Nicholas penned a piece titled "Welcome to Fortess England," in which he lionised the seemingly (to him) invincible English team, and concluded that they were pretty well unbeatable at home. He concluded his piece saying "That Mace is as safe as a slip catch in the hands of the England captain for a while yet."

    Eng's next match was the first of the series against South Africa, at the Oval. SA declared at 637/2. England could not match that score in 2 innings! Hammered, Eng went on to lose the series, the trophy, the Mace and the England captain, who retired at the end of the series.

    This is not good. It must be made clear that THERE IS NO FORTRESS CENTURION!!! It is just another cricket ground. Enough with that fortress stuff.

  • jimmyvida on February 9, 2014, 16:45 GMT

    So Warner is out. Any one knows if ABD will be ready to play for SA. He may not be playing any cricket at the moment. Does one balance the other?

  • Protea.Titan on February 9, 2014, 15:01 GMT

    @Drew Foster nice try, but your original post just highlighted the 47 comparison scores as a sort of justification. Conveniently omitting your 21. 47 is not a good score, neither is 96, but since sport is dictated by scores, those numbers trump 21 anyday. You should just have said SA made 96, Aus 47, no ifs and buts potshots. My reply was to your SA score for 9 wkts snide, to put things in 'perspective', Aus made 21.

  • ZkAneela on February 9, 2014, 14:29 GMT

    I think SA has good batting lineup than Aus atleast.So all who are saying that Aus has better bowling attack should think about Aus batting as well.

  • TommytuckerSaffa on February 9, 2014, 13:59 GMT

    @Johan Kotze Are they not covering the pitch during all this rain or is that only done once the game starts?

  • B.C.G on February 9, 2014, 13:37 GMT

    @Ozcricketwriter,Drew Foster & all the rest.You chaps keep on quoting history.Not bad that.Except the history is only partially quoted.Australia's stunning record in SA is due to 1 ground in particular;The Wanderers which is not in the itinerary this time(thankfully).Instead the 'FORTRESS' Centurion is in.Another bogie ground Durban is also excluded.Instead there is Newlands which seems to be another relative sort of fortress.What's your perspective on that?

  • dummy4fb on February 9, 2014, 13:18 GMT

    To Ozcricketwriter: SA beat Australia 3 to 1 in 1967/68 and 4 zip in 1970/71 in SA. Not that it matters now! I live in Pretoria and stress again there has been a lot of (and still is) rain. The pitch will be extremely dificult even if the grass is cut short with the underground water With such good bowling attacks: GOOD LUCK BATSMEN!

  • dummy4fb on February 9, 2014, 13:08 GMT

    I cannot wait for this to begin. Was the only spectatator last week Tuesday when Proteas played their warm up/trial match at the Wanderers. I have said it before and say it again: Centurion had a lot of rain during the past seven days and again last night. Looking out of my window there is still water in the sky. Super Sport Park is notorious for rain during test matches. Even that one of Hansie Cronje that you refer to. So. I am afraid this match is not going to last a full three days with the team wining the toss in pole position. With the two good bowling attacks, good catching is of the essence. That is why Australia lost in 2008 and especially at Melbourne in the second test. SA lost the third in Sydney when Amla dropped Clarke late on day one with 5 wickets down and he then scored a match winning century the next day.

  • dummy4fb on February 9, 2014, 13:02 GMT

    @Protea.Titan The main point I made was that 19 wickets fell for 94 runs in a small period of time so obviously conditions played a huge, huge roll. What's your perspective on that?

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