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South Africa have the pace bowling to succeed in Australia, but the batters need to step up

The visitors' fast bowling will challenge Australia's in-form batters but South Africa's fragile batting needs to set decent totals to defend

Ian Chappell
Ian Chappell
Pat Cummins and Kagiso Rabada chat on the eve of the first Test Australia vs South Africa, 1st Test, Brisbane, December 16, 2022

The real contest of the series is the battle of the pace attacks led by Pat Cummins and Kagiso Rabada  •  Getty Images

History - even the most recent version - has shown that fast bowlers play a crucial role in winning in Australia. In the last 15 years only two teams, South Africa and India, have beaten Australia at home in a test series more than once. In each case - Dale Steyn in South Africa's and Jasprit Bumrah in India's - a fast bowler played a leading role.
That's not to say a paceman did it all on his own - they had plenty of help - but the fast bowlers set a leading example. The most remarkable of those victories was India's in 2020-21, when they were bundled out for 36, had their captain then fly home, lost Bumrah to injury in the final Test, and yet still narrowly beat Australia at Fortress Gabba.
That was an incredible feat led by India's then junior fast bowler Mohammed Siraj.
If you fully explore Australia's Test history, the importance of pace is brought home even more starkly. In 1932-33, England dominated, with Harold Larwood being the genuine pace-bowling threat. England, whose wiser captains Len Hutton and Ray Illingworth plumped for pace, again dominated Australia with Frank "Typhoon" Tyson in 1954-55 and John Snow in 1970-71 being the successful pace bowlers.
Then it was the turn of West Indies for a period of 14 years, where they monstered Australia at home, winning four times with a successful quartet of very fine fast bowlers.
That turns the spotlight back on South Africa, who arrived this month in Australia with a fine quartet of fast bowlers. In Kagiso Rabada they have a proven pace bowler in Australia. However, in addition they have Anrich Nortje who bowls at genuine pace; Lungi Ngidi, who is a clever fast bowler; and left-armer Marco Jansen, who swings the ball at a good speed.
There is no doubt that South Africa have the fast-bowling quality to succeed in Australia. The big question is whether the fragile batting can produce enough runs to give their bowlers a shot at victory. Through the previous winning sequences in Australia, there was always at least one class batter in the opposition who helped the fast bowlers make victory possible.
This is where South Africa fall down, as they only have their captain, Dean Elgar, as a proven performer in Australia. Elgar is a tough competitor but not a class batter. South Africa will require useful contributions from their other batters if they are going to produce match-winning totals.
Adding to South Africa's batting troubles is the Australian attack. The strength of Australia and a big reason for their recent success at home has been a very strong bowling squad. Even slightly depleted with the loss of Josh Hazlewood from at least the Gabba Test, Australia are still strong in bowling.
However, what will give South Africa heart is that India defeated Australia when the home side's full bowling quartet was in operation at the Gabba. Nevertheless, it still required some remarkably aggressive batting from India to defeat Australia's attack, led by the indefatigable Pat Cummins.
Despite Australia's bowling prowess, it will be the form of their best quickie in captain Cummins who will test the fate of the South African batters. If they handle Cummins well or he is injured, Australia will have to rely on the other fast bowlers to fill the void.
What South Africa's pace quartet will do if they bowl well in Australia is fully test in-form batters who haven't been properly subjected to a top-class bowling attack for a while.
Much of South Africa's success or otherwise will come down to the leadership of Elgar. If he captains the bowlers wisely so they trouble Australia's batters, it will become a winning contest. If, however, the Australian batters are able to counter their pace opponents, the home side will prevail comfortably.
While genuine fast bowling provides a reliable path in Australia, it doesn't always guarantee victory. To win, South Africa need to bowl and field superbly, as well as produce some decent totals.

Former Australia captain Ian Chappell is a columnist