Cricket

South Africa vs Australia: History beckons for Faf du Plessis' men as they look to end 48-year wait against visitors

  • Gaurav Joshi
  • March 1st, 2018
  • 8:58:15 IST

In the first formal introduction to each other as commentators for Channel Nine, Tony Grieg uttered to Bill Lawry, "You're the Australian captain that lost 4-0 in South Africa aren't you?" Greig was spot on. The year was 1970 and even to the present day, Lawry still remains the last Australian skipper to lose a series in the Rainbow nation. It is an incredible record given the dominance of home teams, especially over the past decade.

One of the regrets many players from South African teams of the 70's have is that they never got to confront Australia again for the rest of their careers. Similarly, there is a fair chance that this golden generation of Proteas — AB De Villiers, Hashim Amla, Dale Steyn, Faf Du Plessis and Morne Morkel — will not get another opportunity to bury the 48-year record and also possibly cap off their last series against their bitter rivals across the Indian Ocean on a winning note.

Mitchell Starc will lead Australia's attack in South Africa. AP

Mitchell Starc will lead Australia's attack in South Africa. AP

Ever since winning the Test series against India at the end of January, South Africa has looked lacklustre. Perhaps they were saving themselves and keeping the mind fresh for the Australia Test series. Apart from Amla, each of their high-profile batsmen has had a short break and will be itching to prove their credentials against a high-quality pace attack of Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins.

The South Africans will know if their batting can stand up to the Australian pace battery, they can unleash their own cartel of quicks against a batting line-up that is still over-reliant on skipper Steve Smith.

The Proteas will also take plenty of confidence from their 2-1 series win in Australia only 15 months ago. One of the key aspects in that series was that Vernon Philander and Kagiso Rabada restricted David Warner from scoring freely by bowling a middle-stump line and pushing the ball across him from over the wicket. If they can execute similar plans again, it will prevent Australia from getting away to blazing start, which was a feature of their series win in 2014.

The other big hurdle will be Steve Smith. South Africa would have learnt from watching the Ashes that trying to bore him out is an unassailable task and they will need to find a strategy to penetrate his unorthodox but impregnable technique. If they can succeed, the hosts will go a long way to winning the series. Two years ago in Australia, the Proteas quick succeeded in building pressure on Smith causing him to push at full balls outside his eye-line.

Perhaps South Africa’s best chance lies in making pitches that aid seam bowling and expose the outside edge of Smith’s bat. It was worth noting, the only time Smith failed during the Ashes was when the English bowlers were able to move through the air and off the seam under lights in Adelaide.

The hosts might be tempted to roll out pitches that resemble the ones laid out for the first and third Test against India.

On the other side, Australia pace trio will be eager to test the South African batting unit that was exposed by an Indian pacers, who were arguably a class below Starc, Hazlewood and Cummins. Add to that, the fact that Du Plessis has a damaged finger, De Villiers is still struggling with his back, Quentin De Kock looked horribly out of touch against India and Hazlewood has dismissed Amla in each of his last four outings, Australia will fancy their chances to roll the hosts cheaply.

While pace bowlers are certain to play a key role in the series, the back end of the cricket season in South African means the pitches are likely to be drier, meaning both Nathan Lyon and Keshav Maharaj could play a pivotal role. It's worth noting in South Africa’s previous three series wins against Australia, left-arm spinners — Keshav Maharaj in 2014, Robin Petersen in 2012 and Paul Harris in 2009 — have been instrumental in holding up an end, allowing the quicks to dismantle the batting.

Once again with four Tests in the space of a month, the bench strength of both teams will be tested. It is an area where South Africa has the wood on Australia, meaning there will be additional pressure for the Aussie pace trio to back up for four consecutive matches, a feat that has not happened often in recent times.

The recent discovery of Lungi Ngidi and the return of Temba Bavuma only strengths the home team's squad and provides them a variety of options. Perhaps South Africa's greatest challenge will be picking a team that provides balance. The lack of runs from De Kock could prevent them from sticking to a five bowler strategy, especially early on in the series.

With the first two matches to be played on slower surfaces in Durban and Port Elizabeth, Australia must ensure they keep up with the hosts in the initial part of the series. On the other end, if South Africa can open a few wounds against the moving ball and on slower surfaces, they could force Australia to play catch up cricket, something this young Australian team might struggle with.

Given Australia’s record in South Africa, the stability in the batting since they last played South Africa, the pace bowling cartel and the form of Steve Smith, it will the visitors' series to lose. At the same time, Du Plessis has this uncanny knack of getting under the Australian skin, either as captain or with the bat, and if he can rally his teammates for that one last effort, the golden generation of South African will look back at this series with fond memories.

Updated Date: March 01, 2018 08:58:15 IST

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