The off-field drama due to Sandpapergate has dominated the headlines. But in case you forgot, there is a Test match between Australia and South Africa starting in Johannesburg.
In case you forgot, there is a Test match starting in Johannesburg on Friday. It has been one of the most compelling and riveting series on the field. South Africa lead 2-1 and the Proteas will be desperate to win their first series against Australia on home soil since 1970.
The off-field drama has dominated the headlines. Australia have lost their captain, vice-captain and their opening batsmen. Darren Lehmann, the coach, also announced he will be standing down after the 4th Test. The visitors are in turmoil, between Cape Town and Johannesburg they have had one brief training session, that too on the eve of the Test match.
Darren Lehmann admitted in the pre-game press conference how disruptions have taken a toll on him and the players. “I haven’t slept since last night it has been a really tough period for all of us,” he said.
No doubt, the calamity of it will eventually wear off on the field. There were signs of it in the second innings in Cape Town, where the batsmen almost looked disinterested and mentally fragile. It is hard to see them arriving to play with a lively attitude and concentration powers at their peak. The only refreshing news comes in the form of the new players.
Fresh from the Sheffield Shield victory, Joe Burns and Matthew Renshaw are expected to open the batting, while Peter Handscomb is expected bat at No 5 with Shaun Marsh likely to move up a spot. Renshaw was the leading run-scorer in Shield cricket and his form after Christmas has been sensational, with three centuries at an average over 80. But in the space of four days, he has had to travel across the globe, adjust to the time zone and face a bowling attack that is arguably two levels higher than he confronted at the Allan Border Field, three days ago.
Tim Paine, the leader of the pack now, is an astute and positive cricketer. His greatest challenge is to get the best out of players such as Usman Khawaja and Marsh, the senior brigade in this team. Australia desperately need each player to raise their game — a tough ask given the events of the past few days. But if there was a time to rise for the people of Australia and show the pride in the baggy green, this is it.
The coaching staff was perhaps trying to help the psyche by asking the ground staff to play Australian tunes on the loudspeakers as they trained. They will need more than music to beat South Africa.
While the Australians might have had sleepless nights, the home team has just been going about their own business. It is an emotional Test match for the Proteas too, one of their favourite sons, Morne Morkel, will be representing his beloved nation for the final time and all the players will be keen to send him off on a winning note.
In a low-scoring series, South Africa would be delighted to have had three different centurions so far. Against a bowling attack, deemed the best in the world, they have shown great application and technique to score the tough runs.
It has been an incredible turnaround by South Africa after being hammered in the opening Test. Faf Du Plessis might not have scored many runs, but his ability as a leader to get the best out of his teammates at the right time has only further enhanced his reputation as a fine leader.
Du Plessis will know the Australians will come harder at them than ever before. But he will also know the Australians are a weary bunch and even two gruelling sessions might be sufficient to deflate the visitors for the rest of the match.
But if there is one thing this series has taught us, it is the constant changing of the guard and the fight for superiority has been enthralling. The pitch at the Wanderers is likely to mirror the one from Cape Town and the natural hardness of the clay, plus the altitude, along with the heavy showers in the lead up to Test match means any scores in excess of 300 are likely to be first-rate.
Vernon Philander and Kagiso Rabada will also be satisfied by the fact that they have out-bowled their much-hyped counterparts, but at the same time will be keen to finish on a high against a batting order that is well short on experience at the highest level.
Then there is deciding factor and one of the prime reasons why South Africa are ahead in the series. That is AB De Villiers. The South African No 4, has been a thorn in the Australian side right through the series. The only time he has failed, was when he was run-out for a duck, an incident that really ignited the series in more way than one.
Since that moment, Australia have focused on sledging and other unwarranted tactics, while De Villiers has just let his batting do the talking. Australia are on the ropes and it is difficult to see them competing ball after ball, session after session and day after day. Putting it in Steve Waugh’s terms there on a verge of ‘mental disintegration’.
It is a mammoth task for Tim Paine and Darren Lehmann against a team that is extremely close to achieving a milestone that will ensure the ‘golden generation’ of South African cricketers finish their respective careers on home soil against Australia on a high. Finally, let the cricket begin.
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