At stake Down Under: the spirit of the game

2008-12-16 00:00

Already India and England have led the way with a magnificent contest, notable for a thrilling fourth-innings chase inspired by Virender Sehwag and completed by Yuvraj Singh and Sachin Tendulkar (the most remarkable cricketer to appear since World War 2). India were glorious in victory, England gracious in defeat. Now it is up to South Africa and Australia to prove they too can rise to the occasion.

Certainly, the Chennai Test provided the perfect antidote for the deaths in Mumbai, the match fixing in T20, the corruption in Zimbabwe Cricket (ZC), the debasement of those unwilling to confront ZC, the isolation of Pakistan, the hypocrisy of Australians talking selectively about security, the weakness of half the teams and the irritating, trifle-like, slow over rates that undermine the game.

The fact that the Chennai Test was played at all demonstrated that cricket has not given up. But the contest went further, casting the game in its best possible light. It brought people closer together and was a great credit to all concerned.

Fortunately, there is every reason to hope for a fine match in Perth. Apart from anything else, the teams are well matched and the pitch has not been vetted. South Africa and Australia are more or less carbon copies of each other, with abrupt opening bats, resolute middle-orders, lively pace attacks and an apparently amiable spinner capable of springing a surprise. Certainly, the visitors can be expected to stand their ground in Perth, a venue that causes some touring teams to keel over.

Smith and Dale Steyn will be the most influential players on the South African side. To win in Australia, a team must at least hold its own in the battles of the new ball. The Australian hosts are strong front-runners and cannot be allowed to gain an early advantage. Australia play a hard and consistent game and once they have taken a grip, they seldom let go.

In the past, Smith has made more noise than runs. Along the way, he has been about as diplomatic as Rambo. Now he seems more relaxed and the mood is likely to spread among his players. Australia might still prevail, but they cannot expect their opponents to strain too hard and then blow a gasket at the critical moment.

Now that he has settled down, Smith can make amends for past failures. He is a batsman of massive possibilities. Once set, he turns from jelly to concrete. Previously, he has been beaten by late inswing delivered at high pace, but the problem was as much mental as technical. Doubtless it helps to have Neil McKenzie as a partner, a patient batsman no longer inclined to glue his bat to the ceiling in the hope that it might bring luck.

Herschelle Gibbs, a previous ally, was about as calm as a race caller. If Smith succeeds, he will pave the way for Hashim Amla, who can expect to face an updated version of trial by ordeal (an examination he will anticipate and can pass) and Jacques Kallis, the cricketer of 2007 and, so far, the dud of 2008. As with Smith, South African supporters spend as much time studying Kallis’ belly as his feet. Both tell a tale.

Steyn is the crucial member of a three-pronged pace attack. If he sizzles, then the entire side will respond. If he fizzles, the hosts will start to wring a few necks.

It is a question of setting the tone. Morne Morkel might be a more awkward proposition in Perth, where the bounce is not so much dead cat as live leather, but he is a mild-natured fellow unused to leading an attack. At this stage of his career, Makhaya Ntini is more likely to chip in than to provide the full potato. Not that he is to be underestimated.

If anything, the Australians have more on their minds than the tourists. The form of the old guard is their first concern. Matthew Hayden must confirm that he has not lost his spark, while Andrew Symonds must show that his desire remains strong. Next comes the potency of an attack denied the services of its most persistent operator in Stuart Clark. Still, replacement Peter Siddle is a fiery fellow.

Players and spectators alike have been waiting a long time for this match to begin. It promises to be a fascinating stoush. South Africa have come close to winning on previous tours and now face a weaker opponent. Let us hope the series lives up to expectations, and that the players take the chance to soar. Let us hope that drunken barrackers keep their mouths shut too.

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