Fiery Contest Promises Much In Perth
Lingering bad blood between Australia and South Africa threatens to boil over as they meet at the WACA today in the first of a three Test Series in Perth on Thursday. Australia will be looking to rebound from a nightmare tour of Sri Lanka where they were embarrassed in being clean swept 3-0. The team's batting looked totally at sea in the spinning conditions, as Australia blew their chance to go Number 1 in the world, instead being relegated to 3rd behind India and Pakistan.
The tourists have alarmingly slipped to 5th in the rankings after some patchy form in the past 18 months. They were surprisingly beaten 2-1 at home to England, as well as convincingly 3-0 in India, and only managed a 0-0 draw in a 2-Test tour of Bangladesh. Missing captain and talisman AB De Villiers, the pressure is on senior players in the likes of Hashim Amla, Faf Du Plessis, Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel to deliver in a marquee series.
Faf Du Plessis described Australia as "like a pack of wild dogs" during Australia's 2-1 Test Series win in South Africa in 2014. While South Africa cruised to a 5-0 victory in the recent ODI series in South Africa, the contest was notable for a number of niggly exchanges between the likes of David Warner, Matthew Wade and some of their South African counterparts. Already the South Africans have been on the front foot verbally with Dale Steyn targeting captain Steve Smith and Vernon Philander declaring the tourists "can get nasty" if required.
This sort of niggle in the media is actually much needed as the build-up to the Test Summer seems to have been awfully flat here in Australia. With T20 cricket a runaway phenomenon, and more and more players becoming T20 guns for hire, Test Cricket needs a quality contest between some of its best players. Test Cricket has been under the gun of late with some less than stellar series in India and Dubai attracting poor crowds and poor TV ratings. There has been talk of reducing Tests to 4-days, and more and more Day/Night Tests are being scheduled. Australia and South Africa can put that talk to bed, at least temporarily, with a tight and fiercely contested series here.
Both Teams At Home In the Conditions
Whilst the Australian Test team has been a paper tiger away from home, there is nothing wrong with their formula at home. While their aggressive, in your face cricket might need tinkering on the road, Australia remain a dominant force during home summers, strikingly, at least in the last four years, perhaps close to as dominant as Australia's halcyon days of the late 1990's and early 2000's.
Indeed, since South Africa came to Australia in 2012/13 and memorably won the three Test Series 1-0 in Perth, Australia remain undefeated on home soil. Australia retain a formidable record at home with 14 wins from their last 18 Tests, and no defeats, during the last three summers with six straight series victories including crushing clean sweeps of Sri Lanka 3-0, India 4-0 and England 5-0.
While Australia has a formidable record at home, South Africa is the one team that have punctured that record over the last decade. On their last two trips to Australia, South Africa has left victoriously claiming the Number 1 ranking in the process. on both occasions In 2007/08 Graeme Smith's men achieved a famous 2-1 victory, whilst in 2012/13 they repeated the dose claiming a 1-0 victory with an emphatic final Test victory in Perth.
The number 1 ranking will not be up for grabs for the tourists this time around however a series victory is just as important for a side that has puzzlingly slipped to 5th spot in the rankings, the tourists will not be intimidated by the in-your-face, aggressive approach that Australia will hit them with. I expect this series to be fiery and Australia to be hard to beat at home. Both teams play in similar conditions with Australian and South African batsmen more much adept and at home on hard and true surfaces.
WACA Under Pressure As It Bids Farewell
The WACA sadly takes its final bow here with the new 60,000 seat stadium at Burswood nearing completion. The WACA has been an iconic venue in Australian cricket, whereas many grounds have modernised and lost character, it remains an old ramshackle ground with the paint peeling off it. Grounds like the SCG, Adelaide Oval and Gabba look nothing like they did a decade ago. However the WACA has remained virtually untouched with its old stands and vast hill where the locals can dish out plenty to the visiting side.
There is now huge pressure on the WACA staff to produce one last fast and bouncy wicket to open the Australian summer with two teams brimming with fast bowling weapons. One just hopes that the WACA pitch can live up to past glories and produce this kind of wicket after last year's disastrously dull Test Match against New Zealand. First innings scores of 559 and 624 on a slow and featherbed Perth pitch led to fierce criticism of a wicket which was once a genuine point of difference and where intimidation could be used as a genuine tactic for aggressive fast bowlers. Test Cricket needs a contest between bat and ball as a priority and scores over 500 are neither desirable nor captivating for the viewer.
Despite the retirement of Australia's pack leader Mitchell Johnson, Mitchell Starc has stepped in seamlessly and will be cranking things up in Perth alongside Josh Hazlewood and Peter Siddle. South Africa, despite an alarming slump to 5th in the world rankings, retains the best fast bowling cartel in world cricket with Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander. Steyn, even at 33 years of age, remains the premier fast bowler in the world with 416 wickets at an average of 22. Whilst he might be a fraction down on pace at times the past couple of years, Steyn will relish the big occasion and has been a huge factor in the Tourists winning on their last two trips to Australia. Whilst Philander will undoubtedly do the donkey work into the breeze, Morne Morkel will no doubt enjoy the bounce that Perth has to offer. Whilst he can blow hot and cold, if he gets it right he will be more than a handful. There has been plenty of hype about the raw talent of Kagiso Rabada, a 21 year old tear away fast bowler who produced several fiery spells against Australia in the recent ODI series.
I am leaning ever so slightly towards Australia in this Test Match purely because I think AB De Villiers is irreplaceable for South Africa. The tourists have the firepower with the ball to match or even upstage Australia in these conditions. However I feel they are one quality and proven performer light in the batting stakes while they are missing De Villiers. There will be plenty of pressure on Faf Du Plessis and Hashim Amla to carry the can. Australia's batting is vulnerable, particularly with Mitch Marsh and Peter Neville out of sorts at Numbers 6 and 7. However at the top of the order they have players that will be right at home in the conditions in Perth.