Australia in South Africa 2013-14 February 11, 2014

A battle beyond the boardroom

In recent weeks, the importance of a cricket nation's international performance has run secondary to the capacity of its board to deal shrewdly, even secretly, to secure a greater share of the money flowing into the game. The coup completed at the ICC board table in Singapore on Saturday placed Australia in exclusive company alongside India and England, the "big three" now effectively grasping the sort of influence and financial strength that will leave the rest beholden to their whims.

So what irony that in the same instant Cricket Australia were placing themselves at the very top of the game's decision-making, the national team was battling rain and a cramped time-frame to prepare as adequately as possible for a bout with South Africa, the finest team of the age but a minor player in the new shape of world cricket's governance. Unlike the boardroom tussle, this conflict will be played out in full public view, with the hosts holding many of the aces.

Chief among these is the inherent advantage of playing on familiar soil, a factor that grows evermore influential with each passing year of cramped schedules, jumbled formats and commercial thinking. Not so long ago, India were chastised for wounded talk of "wait until we play you at home", but the emerging trend of the past 12 months has been that near enough to every team has taken up something of this attitude, for reasons financial as much as practical. In the words of one former administrator, "ultimately what matters most for all your stakeholders is to win at home".

Australia certainly followed this dictum during back-to-back Ashes bouts, planning, scheming and preparing during a series lost in England to mete out fearful revenge in the southern hemisphere. Theirs was a triumph in every sense, not only sweeping Alastair Cook's tourists on the field but causing all manner of chaos for them off it, with a casualty list now including three members of the touring team plus the coach, Andy Flower.

Yet that series is now considered by Australia's captain Michael Clarke and coach Darren Lehmann to be little more than a pleasant starting point for what they hope will be a far longer run of victories, against all comers and in all conditions. Lehmann likes to say such success is vital "if we're going to get to where we want to go", namely to the top spot on the global rankings that South Africa currently possess.

That supremacy has been built upon a subversion of the home-ground notion, for Graeme Smith's side have become much admired for being capable of performing to a high standard anytime, anywhere. Nothing speaks to this quite so strongly as their unbeaten record overseas since 2006, a run outlasting even their string of victories at home. Ricky Ponting's underrated 2009 tourists were the last team to beat South Africa anywhere.

Clarke is old enough to recall the attributes of the great Australian team that had begun to decline by then, namely their mental strength in replicating the command performances of Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth, Melbourne and Sydney in such destinations as Nagpur, Colombo, Bridgetown, Dhaka, and Johannesburg. It is a standard to which he and Lehmann again aspire, following the accumulation of a horrid away record last year - seven defeats from nine Tests.

"The fact that not many teams have won away in the last couple of years is what makes it a greater prize, a greater challenge," Clarke said. "My view is you want to win every game you play, whether I'm playing in Australia or playing in South Africa or the West Indies or India, you want to have success. But it's obviously extremely hard to win away from home and I think the last couple of years you've seen that across the board.

"If we want to get back to being No. 1 in the world, we have to have success away from home, we have to beat the best teams, and as tough a challenge as it is we're excited about it."

Clarke and his team have plenty of reason to think they can measure up to the task, not least because in South Africa they find an environment not too far removed from their own. If India's turning pitches can seem like playing on the moon, South Africa's fast and seaming decks are more like venturing from Sydney to Brisbane at the outset of the summer, albeit with a nine-hour time difference thrown in.

"It's probably going to be easier for us to adapt to these conditions, but there's always a home-ground advantage," Clarke said. "You've got crowd, you've got family, you've got friends, you've got the comforts of if you're playing in your own state you stay in your own house. The food, the hotels, you know the grounds, you know the change rooms - there's so much that comes with playing in your own backyard. Hence why it's so hard to have success away from home. To be the best team in the world you've got to be able to adapt."

In Mitchell Johnson, Ryan Harris, Peter Siddle and Nathan Lyon, Australia have a bowling attack more than capable of making such an adaptation. Clarke will not want for willing and skilful practitioners in the field, eager also to test themselves against opponents not quite so familiar as England became over the course of 10 Tests. South Africa may even offer an added advantage to the pacemen - swing is often more easily found on the Highveld than at home.

But the greater questions will be asked of the touring side's batsmen, who despite accumulating solid enough aggregates against the Englishmen, showed an alarming consistency in their first innings troubles. They cannot expect South Africa to be quite so courteous to the middle order and tail, even if Brad Haddin and Steve Smith remain in the best batting touch of their old and young careers.

There is also uncertainty about the shape and capability of the batting order, a state of affairs created by the dropping of George Bailey, who has been missed as an equable tourist so far, and the latest ailment picked up by Shane Watson. Irrespective of how Alex Doolan, Shaun Marsh and Phillip Hughes fare in the series, they will not prosper without help from Clarke. His run-making trailed off towards the end of the Ashes, and he must locate a far richer seam at Centurion to give his side a chance.

Looking on from the boundary's edge will be those men of the boardroom. They will discuss the game's new future and its apparent unequal divide, and how South Africa might continue to thrive with what must now amount to patronage from Australia, India and England. Meanwhile the two teams will fight on a far more even footing, a place where negotiations, relationships and political expedience mean far less than skill, courage and resilience. It can only be hoped that this will remain so.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here