Tom Sizeland highlights five points of discussion ahead of Thursday morning’s Perth opener.
SPINNER OR MORKEL?
The big selection issue for the Proteas is whether to opt for a frontline spinner or a fourth seamer. If history is anything to go by, they might feel the trident of Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander and Kagiso Rabada will be enough, with Keshav Maharaj making a strong claim for selection. Three seamers tore through the Aussies the last time they met at the Waca in 2012, with Robin Peterson offering the spin option. But then again, the South Africans did have Jacques Kallis to call upon as the fourth seamer back then. Picking a fourth seamer in Morkel does seem the more sensible option this time around. He played in both of their victories at Perth and took wickets in each. He has the experience, and he has the height and pace tailor-made for the Waca track. JP Duminy can then provide relief to the quicks with his off-spin, but Peterson, and Paul Harris back in 2008, will tell you spin has more than played its part in Perth.
BATTLE OF THE QUICKS
Spinner or not, 20 wickets are required for victory, and that’s going to come down to the fast bowlers. The Proteas can say with relative comfort that, on paper, their attack is more threatening. Steyn is the third-most successful bowler between the sides in history (69 wickets from 14 matches @ 27), Philander looked somewhere back to his best against New Zealand and has a good record against the Aussies to boot (25 wickets from seven matches @ 30). This will be Rabada’s biggest test yet, but we all know what he’s capable of. The Australian bowling attack lacks experience, fitness and form in various areas. This will be Josh Hazlewood’s first Test against the Proteas, Mitchell Starc has a leg injury that he promises won’t affect him, and Peter Siddle hasn’t played at the highest level since February. What they do have is the luxury of a pace all-rounder in Mitchell Marsh, but he hasn’t exactly lit up the international scene with leather in hand. It will be interesting to see if they can shake off all these factors and match up to a South African attack with their tails up.
PROUD RECORD ON THE LINE
Home-ground advantage is not really something you can associate with a Test series between Australia and the Proteas. The Proteas haven’t lost a series in Australia since 2005, and that was the last time the host nation won between the sides. Australia aren’t called ‘home-track bullies’ for nothing – they haven’t lost a home series since 2012. It was the Proteas who beat them back then, and it was at Perth where this was achieved, as they won by 309 runs to seal the series 1-0. The Saffas beat them in 2008-09 as well, and it was the opener in Perth that handed them the advantage. Australia have only won five of their last 10 Tests at the Waca, and as many as seven South Africans in the likely XI have experience of beating them there. Can South Africa remain unbeaten in Perth?
You wouldn’t believe it, but the Proteas have only won two of their last Test 12 matches. You wouldn’t believe it because they look like a side full of confidence, and dare I say, are very slight favourites going into this series. Graeme Pollock mentioned in his column earlier in the week that AB de Villiers’ absence has actually benefited them, as they’ve had to rally together as a team to perform without relying too much on one player. Faf du Plessis has stepped up admirably as skipper, leading his side to a Test series victory against New Zealand and the ODI whitewash against Australia. He looks the real deal as a captain in the longest format. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that they aren’t missing De Villiers in the middle order, but their performances certainly aren’t being affected. They look like a group of players in very good spirits, and they need to ride on that vibe, along with their new-found form and confidence, from day one.
SMITH UNDER PRESSURE?
The 5-0 defeat in South Africa was bad enough, but the 3-0 Test series defeat to Sri Lanka was worse. They went into that series as the favourites, but they were thoroughly outplayed. Skipper Steve Smith doesn’t seem to be getting the best out of his players at the moment, and he’s lacking in senior players around him to draw experience from. Having said that, there’s no issues with his own form. In 2016 he’s scored 509 runs from six matches at an average of 63.62. David Warner’s stats prove scary reading too. His average at the Waca is 95.85 from four Tests, and his Test average against the Proteas is 68.09 from six matches. Much will depend on the willow of Smith and Warner, which might explain why Steyn said the Proteas need to target Australia’s leadership. Get these guys out, and you not only have a captain and vice-captain under pressure, but you have a pair of world-class batsmen battling for form too.
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