Sydney to Potchefstroom in less than 48 hours. That was the whirlwind trip that greeted those members of Australia's Twenty20 side which beat New Zealand at the SCG on Sunday and were then required for the tour of South Africa. As preparation for a crucial Test series goes it's not ideal, so Australia's only warm-up game ahead of the first Test in Johannesburg will be a vital step as they aim to cling on to the No. 1 ranking that they now hold by their fingernails.
Brad Haddin, Peter Siddle and Ben Hilfenhaus were the lucky ones who made the mad rush from Sydney, although several others had only a couple of extra days' break after wrapping up the Chappell-Hadlee Trophy on Friday. The opener Simon Katich has spent the past month working on his game at state level, having not been picked in the ODI side, and he said the three-day match in Potchefstroom would be especially valuable for the limited-overs players.
"All our batsmen will be looking to spend some time out in the middle and just acclimatise to the difference in conditions here," Katich said. "Obviously the bowlers will be looking for a good hit-out given that they've been playing a lot of one-day cricket in the last month. They'll be looking forward to getting a few overs under their belts and getting used to backing up for two or three spells a day."
That kind of rapid adjustment was never a problem when the attack featured Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath. But a green attack headed by Mitchell Johnson and featuring no bowlers with Test experience in South Africa will need the chance to assess the local conditions before being thrust into the Wanderers with the task of taking 20 wickets against one of the world's most daunting batting line-ups.
Johnson and Siddle will spearhead the bowling group with Doug Bollinger the most likely candidate for the third seamer's position ahead of Hilfenhaus, having made his Test debut in Sydney. At 36 the legspinner Bryce McGain is hardly a young up-and-comer but he will also be in line for his Test debut and Katich said it was a thrill to see the fresh faces performing in the nets and on the field.
"Obviously we've got some young guys coming into the side and it's exciting from their point of view that they're making their way in Test cricket and so far a few of them have really stepped up straight away," Katich said. "Young guys like Mitchell Johnson and Peter Siddle in our attack did really well in a couple of the Tests in Australia and hopefully they can keep gaining confidence from that."
One man for whom confidence will not be an issue is Phillip Hughes, the 20-year-old opener who has replaced the retired Matthew Hayden. Hughes has proven himself as a man who can handle pressure situations at domestic level and Katich has no doubt that form can carry into Test cricket.
"I haven't actually seen him bat [in the nets here] but I've spoken to him and he seems to be settling in nicely and happy with the way he's going," Katich said. "He's coming in off very good form and that's all you can ask for as a player, to be picked in the squad when you're making runs."
In the match starting on Friday the Australians will be taking on a South African Board President's XI that is dominated by Lions and Titans players because of a clash with the domestic Pro20 finals. But any practice is good practice and with the South Africa Test players having spent the past six weeks at home, the Australians need to squeeze a lot of hard work into the next three days.
"We identified from the Test series that's just been played in Australia that there's probably issues with us getting bigger partnerships," Katich said. "From a batting perspective that was something we're trying to deal with. Obviously we were disappointed with the loss in Australia.
"But I think given that we won the last Test match and the first two Test matches were pretty closely fought we take a lot of positive stuff out of that series. Even though it was disappointing to lose, there's stuff we can hopefully work on and improve on. Then hopefully that'll help us get the right results here."
Australia squad: Simon Katich, Phillip Hughes, Ricky Ponting (capt), Michael Hussey, Michael Clarke, Marcus North, Andrew McDonald, Brad Haddin (wk), Mitchell Johnson, Nathan Hauritz, Peter Siddle, Bryce McGain, Ben Hilfenhaus, Doug Bollinger.
SA President's XI squad Alviro Petersen (capt), Craig Alexander, Gulam Bodi, Imraan Khan, Heino Kuhn, Ethy Mbhalati, Blake Snijman, Imran Tahir, Roelof van der Merwe, Vaughn van Jaarsveld, David Wiese.