Ricky Ponting hopes Peter Siddle can perform the role that Stuart Clark did on the last tour of South Africa
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Bryce McGain must have walked under a ladder to avoid a black cat on Friday the 13th. What else could explain the terrible misfortune of being struck down by a stomach bug on the eve of the first Test in Johannesburg six months after he looked sure to make his Test debut in India until being sent home for surgery on his armpit?
In the lead-up to the series in South Africa, McGain, 36, had been expected to play his first Test at the Wanderers. Instead he was left out of the 12-man squad due to a combination of the rainy weather, seam-friendly conditions and his illness, which first struck during the tour game in Potchefstroom, where he was unable to take the field in the second innings due to food-related gastroenteritis.
"It's been all the fast bowlers, particularly the swing bowlers, that have done very well at this particular venue," the Australian captain Ricky Ponting said on Wednesday. "With the weather the way it's been and with the wicket being a bit soft we just felt that the seamers would probably get more assistance than the spinners would, through the course of the game.
"As it turns out, Bryce was quite ill up in Potchefstroom and he's actually gone down again overnight today. He's not at training today so there's a lot of things that you take into consideration when you're picking a team."
McGain and Nathan Hauritz, who was also left out, will come into contention in the second Test at Durban but for now the spin responsibilities are likely to fall largely on the shoulders of Marcus North, who is expected to make his debut as the No. 6 batsman. He collected a career-best 6 for 69 in Potchefstroom on the weekend and Ponting was confident North could handle the role with some assistance from Michael Clarke, whose back soreness will prevent him from bowling long spells.
"I think he can do a job for us," Ponting said of North. "I think he showed that in Potchefstroom. He probably got some wickets that he might not have otherwise got, in the second innings, with the game sort of petering out the way it was.
"But I stood at first slip and was very impressed by the way that he bowled and used his changes of pace and control through that game. We know that he can give us some spin overs if required."
However, the bulk of the bowling is expected to be done by Australia's four-man pace attack. The medium-pacer Andrew McDonald is in the squad along with the fast men Mitchell Johnson, Peter Siddle, Doug Bollinger and Ben Hilfenhaus, and one of the five must miss out.
Ponting does not have Stuart Clark to call on during the tour as he recovers from elbow surgery. It was on the last trip to South Africa that the then-debutant Clark seamed the ball so dangerously that he was the Player of the Series in Australia's 3-0 win. Ponting hopes Siddle, the second-most experienced member of a green fast-bowling group, can be the man to step into Clark's role this time.
"Peter Siddle is probably the bowler who is most like Stuey," Ponting said. "He is not a real swinger of the ball but he gets the seam up and hits the seam all the time. That's what Stuey did over here so well last time."
However, Ponting expects the pitches to be slightly different from the seaming surfaces that confronted the side in 2005-06. Back then, there was one man who could scare the South Africans from 30 metres away.
"They were really worried about Warney last time which is why they had a fair bit of juice in them," Ponting said. "No Warney this time so I think they might be a bit flatter wickets or a bit better batting wickets anyway."
Not only is there no Shane Warne, there is no replacement. McGain will be watching from the dressing-rooms hoping desperately that the conditions - and his stomach - are more cooperative in Durban.
Brydon Coverdale is a staff writer at Cricinfo