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February 10, 2014
A perfunctory preparation and the considerably greater batting hours clocked by his rivals may not stop Shaun Marsh from making an extraordinary return to Australia's Test side for the first Test against South Africa on a decidedly grassy Centurion Park pitch.
Only three days after he arrived in Africa and only four since he considered himself having no chance of being called up to the touring team following a calf injury, Marsh is a serious contender for one of two batting spots left vacant by the dropping of George Bailey and the loss of Shane Watson to injury.
Alex Doolan remains favoured to make his debut in the first Test, but Marsh is thought to be ahead of Phillip Hughes in the eyes of the tour selectors Darren Lehmann and John Inverarity, who chose him in their initial squad of 15. This is despite the fact that Hughes has now been in South Africa for nearly two weeks and top scored with 83 in the closest thing the Australians have had to a warm-up match - center wicket practice at the Wanderers on Friday.
Brad Haddin, the vice-captain, said that Hughes' greater acclimatisation time would not necessarily work in his favour. "If it's whoever gets here first we're going to have state players trying to get their own flight over here before everyone else," Haddin quipped. "Hughesy was in pretty good form in the trial game the other day but Shaun was picked on the original tour.
"Shaun's probably getting to the age where it's his last crack. He seems more settled in him game. What I've seen during the one-day series he seems pretty comfortable with where he was at. It's no better arena to test himself against these blokes to see how far he has come in his game."
The other option open to Lehmann and Inverarity is the inclusion of the allrounder Moises Henriques, but Haddin said he was very confident that a four-man bowling attack would be sufficient at Centurion, with Nathan Lyon capable of fulfilling a holding role alongside Mitchell Johnson, Ryan Harris and Peter Siddle.
"They've done that during the summer," Haddin said of the bowlers shouldering a heavy load. "Watto didn't bowl that much during the summer in all honesty. I think the bowlers are pretty conditioned to that, and also this is a three Test series not a five Test series so they won't be holding anything back and they won't be holding anything back, whatever we decide to go with, and even Warner bowled a few overs the other day so you never know..."
Haddin was central to Australia's sweep of England at home, counter-attacking boldly with the bat whenever he was called upon to do so. He duly enjoyed the celebrations in the wake of the Ashes as heartily as anyone, but has now taken a central role in re-focusing the team on their next target.
"I felt as comfortable as I have for a long time. I was just enjoying the whole series," Haddin said. "It was a massive series to be part of an Ashes campaign and I enjoyed it but this is another challenge. These guys are number one in the world and they've got a pretty handy attack so it's going to be a different kettle of fish so I'm looking forward to that.
"I'm always trying to look at ways to improve and simplify my game. I always said if I stop trying to challenge myself to be a better player I'll call it a day. I'm still enjoying the challenge to be the best cricketer I can and I'm really looking forward to having a crack at this series. It's going to be a cracker, there's going to be nowhere to hide, so it's going to be a great series all-round."
As for what Australia had to do to knock South Africa off the lofty, undefeated perch they have held in Test cricket since 2009, Haddin said improvement on the team's efforts against England was mandatory, most particularly in the area of first-innings batting. Graeme Smith's team cannot be expected to be quite as charitable as Alastair Cook's men had been whenever they slid to five down for not many.
"We've got make sure we recognise the big moments and when the big moments do arrive we jump on them," Haddin said. "Whether that's getting through a tough hour with the ball, bowling some maidens for a session, or taking the game by the scruff of the neck and moving it forward. We've just got to recognise what the game needs.
"You've always got to look to improve. We can't just rest on what we've done against England. Yes, that was exciting but now it's a totally different beast we're trying to tame here. I'd like to keep scoring two hundreds per Test as it averaged out in Australia but obviously we need to get first innings runs. That's one of the areas we need to improve on. That's no secret to anyone."
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets hereFeeds: Daniel Brettig
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