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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Prasanna on February 13, 2014, 5:53 GMT

    @dunger.bob, i wish your words come true - they must be smashed. But the bigger question is , will other teams be allowed to do it ? Can't digest the fact that the game that i followed for a very long time and loved the most has badly been ruined by one bunch of selfish administrators. I am sure several other fans feel the same.

  • Vaughan on February 12, 2014, 8:07 GMT

    We are not England!!!!!!!

  • Dummy4 on February 12, 2014, 7:31 GMT

    @Thruthecovers, well the hard part is going to be making runs, little doubt about that, but I'd just say that our bowling attack is more than likely good enough to defend whatever we can score on a lot of occasions. That's how it panned out against England and they went into the ashes with a batting team including Cook, Bell, Trott, KP and Prior, plenty of class there. Like yourself, most people just look at MJ and regard him as the difference, but Harris is equally as responsible, he is consistently world class, we just look so much better when MJ clicks as well because then we have two world class quicks.

    Rogers, Warner, Clarke, Smith and Haddin have to make the runs for us and I think they are good enough. Warner and Clarke both scored big against them last summer and Rogers is clearly good enough as a test cricketer. Smith will enjoy himself too if the top 4 can lay a platform.. he and MC will make life difficult for SA as they will not let Peterson and Duminy bowl at them.

  • rob on February 11, 2014, 21:56 GMT

    @ JustIPL: "All the teams who accpeted BCCI money distribution formula have to make sure that India remains number one in test, ODI and T20s otherwise with falling ratings revenues will also go down hitting the pockets of receivers" - What? Are you saying its in the best interests of everyone that India is the perennial top team? Am I reading that right? .... Not in this lifetime old buddy. I think it's every ones sworn duty to smash India around as much as possible on the field. Not let up and certainly no favours.

  • Helmut on February 11, 2014, 20:51 GMT

    @Jono Makim only the exceptionaly one-eyed fan would dispute Aus bowling attack is far better than what they were the last time these 2 met. Other than to qualify that it just amplifies the one quality that has always plaqued MJ(because he was playing in at least part of those matches)...inconsistency. But that is still only half the story, isn't it? All but a few Aus fans keep harping on about their much improved bowling attack, conveniently forgetting it is the batsmen that set up the win and bowlers go and get it. Will your batting line-up be able to withstand the toughest test in world cricket today? That is the question. And since no one is mentioning it, it looks more like hope than conviction. You guys are hoping Warner and co comes off to lend support to an increasingly fallible MC. Do that, in you're in with a chance. SA's batting line-up might fail once in a while but given the stats and history of the last 3-4 years, they are as solid as can be for the most part. Good luck

  • Dummy4 on February 11, 2014, 19:13 GMT

    Well I reckon this is, in prospect at least, probably the most exciting series between these two nations in a long time. We pushed SA hard at home last summer but this time I feel our bowling attack is far ahead of what it was just 12 months ago. Gone are the inconsistencies, the injury clouds, rotations and all the other nonsense. Make no mistake, a teams bowling is what wins it matches and right now our attack is running hot... game on! Can. Not. Wait!

  • Dummy4 on February 11, 2014, 13:03 GMT

    What a load of crock we have just witnessed. Is this not a sign how corrupt aspects of cricket have become. This does not serve cricket and as a South African I am outraged and in no way accept this cue de da. At the same time I have nothing good to say about the SA board who would allow such utter nonsense to continue. Where is the fight back.?! Perhaps it is time to get experienced cricketers and Administrators to run cricket, not political cronies. Yes, digusted- Good luck to SA and the Aussies.

  • Dummy4 on February 11, 2014, 13:02 GMT

    The series against England just passed was good practice for a side still coming together. Still, only Steve Smith and Michael Clarke got valuable first innings centuries with Chris Rogers two first innings half centuries.

    We'll see if Shane Watsons absence is the blessing in disguise that seemingly every Australian thinks it will be. Shane Watson not bowling means Steve Smith bowling to Amla and co, we should probably remember that.

    I suspect Shaun Marsh and Moises Henriques will get more match play than Phil Hughes, sadly. Alex Doolan may or may not have what it takes, he's only really had that one good season and has never really consolidated his talent in first class cricket into anything substantial, certainly not this summer.

    Shaun Marsh might smash a century, never know, but when it comes to likely scenario's, I think we need Phil Hughes up the top and hope Shane Watson gets healthy quickly.

    Rogers Hughes Warner Clarke Smith Watson Haddin Johnson Harris Siddle Lyon

  • Tahir on February 11, 2014, 12:10 GMT

    That money making talk is bound to the boardroom for now. BCCI will try to have greater say soon and then Aus/Eng + others will have to think. Despite being the first country to accept B3, NZ did not spare India an inch in the first test. So, it is good for cricket fans who want to watch true cricket out there in the middle if they are not biased off course towards their national team. All the teams who accpeted BCCI money distribution formula have to make sure that India remains number one in test, ODI and T20s otherwise with falling ratings revenues will also go down hitting the pockets of receivers. Losing matches will be enough to evaporate the revenues even if B3 don't relagate.

  • xxxxx on February 11, 2014, 11:48 GMT

    The Ashes hype is fun but for the best, full-on cricket in this part of the galaxy from two sides who always give 100%, I prefer SA-Aus.

    SA have earned their numero uno and favourite status and while Aus have batting talent it is yet to prove itself as an all-weather traveller. Both sides are unsetlled by the loss of an all-rounder and I would have liked to see Kallis one more time (although if any international cricketer deserves a break it is Jacques).

    So, lots of subplots and great cricket in prospect and a welcome change from the ICC shambles.

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