Mitchell Johnson has had mixed results in South Africa. Image courtesy of dailytelegraph.com.au/AFP
Australia’s Test team is on a high after its remarkable 5-0 shutout of England over the summer, but the fact remains that on foreign soil the side was smashed 4-0 in India last March before succumbing 3-0 to England in the middle of the year. As with the Ashes series just gone, Australia’s batting was its weak point; four times in the UK the visitors led on first innings , only to throw the game away in the second innings.
South Africa is far more ruthless than either India or England, so the tourists can’t afford to let opportunities slip when the teams begin their three-Test series on Wednesday night (AEST). The ‘Gabba has been nicknamed the ‘Gabbatoir’, given the routing slaying of touring teams on the bouncy deck in Brisbane, but the first encounter of this series will be played at Centurion, a ground on which the Proteas have lost just once since re-admission. The less said about a game which involved South Africa forfeiting its second innings under the leadership of the late Hansie Cronje, the better. The home side’s record apart from that match speaks for itself, though, with 14 wins and three draws. The last five victories have come by an innings.
Australia is one team which shouldn’t struggle on the pacy wicket, although it’s difficult to say given the side has played just once at Centurion for a defeat in 1997. In six series in the Rainbow Nation since South Africa came back in to world cricket, the home side has never managed to beat Australia. The Proteas will have to get used to life without the recently-retired Jacques Kallis, as well, although the loss of Shane Watson to injury means both teams are without their regular all-rounders.
Alex Doolan had already been pegged to make his Test debut before Watson’s calf played up, but the latter’s injury leaves the door ajar for Phillip Hughes or Shaun Marsh to be recalled, while all-rounder Moises Henriques is also in the frame. The left-handers have had rollercoaster rides in the Test arena, but Hughes, in particular, will have fond memories of the African nation after his stunning debut series there in 2009. Marsh, too, did his best work in the Test arena overseas, showing he can play at this level with a phenomenal run in Sri Lanka a few years back. He made 44 and 0 in his only appearance against the Proteas two years back when he was hampered by a back injury.
Another player who has had an up and down career, to say the least, is Mitchell Johnson . On the same tour Hughes made his mark, Johnson was lethal with bat and ball as Australia prevailed 2-1. He took 16 wickets in three Tests on that trip, but he was a spent force due to injury and loss of form in 2011 when he laboured through two clashes, picking up the grand total of 3/255. The speedster was the main man in Australia’s whitewash of England and he should revel in South African conditions. Unlike England where it can feel claustrophobic with the fans on top of you, Johnson is unlikely to cop too much heckling from the sparse crowds in SA. Ryan Harris has a game tailor-made to the types of wickets produced in South Africa, and he picked up 4/33 in his only Test appearance on a dicey deck in Cape Town late in 2011.
South Africa’s spearhead, Dale Steyn , has spent the past six weeks recovering from a rib injury, and lacks any sort of volume of work heading in to this series. Centurion is one of his happiest hunting grounds, though, with 18 wickets at just 16.55 in his last three appearances there. Those performances have come against the three sub-continent Test-playing nations, so he should find it harder work against a side brought up on these sort of pitches. His partner-in-crime, Vernon Philander , has collected 12 scalps at just 13 in his only two appearances at Centurion.
The world’s number one ranked batsman at Test and one-day level, AB de Villiers , has also recovered sufficiently from injury to take his place in the first Test team. de Villiers had surgery in late December on his left hand, but batted in the second innings of South Africa’s warm-up match against a South African Invitational XI in Johannesburg. In his last three times at the crease at Centurion, the right-hander has racked up scores of 129, 99 and 121. He has the opportunity to move up the order from five to four with Kallis departing the scene, but Faf du Plessis is more likely to slot in to that spot.
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