Let’s put Oz bluster to bat

2014-01-11 00:00

CAN the SA batsmen cope with “the best attack in the world”?

Jubilant Australian captain Michael Clarke is entitled to a few moments of hyperbole following his team’s stunning demolition of England, but the fate of Alastair Cook’s side should remind Clarke of the dangers of hubris. He should also have learnt enough about the personalities of the South African bowlers to refrain from riling Dale Steyn and his friends.

We have heard this type of extravagant nonsense from Aussie captains in the past. In 1970, Bill Lawry made the astonishing claim that Ian Chappell was the best batsman in the world despite the presence in this country of Graeme Pollock and Barry Richards. He was soon to regret his indiscretion and eventually left these shores nursing a 4-0 hiding, the only whitewash suffered by Australian cricket.

What Clarke might have been wiser to say is that next month’s battle between his team and the Proteas will be intriguing because both teams have splendid bowling attacks. This, however, would not have been the kind of inflammatory remark, traditionally dealt by Australian captains, that is designed to get under the skins of their opponents. Such a bland comment might also have led to the question of which team have the better batsmen.

This would have left Clarke on weaker ground. Not even an Aussie half drunk with celebration would claim that the Baggy Greens have a reliable top order of batsmen. Had Brad Haddin not rescued his team in five successive Tests, the Aussies might well have failed to regain the Ashes, let alone win the series 5-0. Therein lies the weakness of the current Australian team even when one compares them with the Proteas batting without Jacques Kallis.

Much of the English bowling in the Ashes was average at best. Credit must be given to the Aussies for seeing Graeme Swann off the premises for they realised that he was the lynchpin of the England attack. Swann had given his team control in the middle overs of an innings and had been effective in demolishing tail enders. With Swann hit out of the attack, Cook had no one of pace to fall back on and the game was quickly taken away from him.

The South Africans do not rely on their spin bowler to anything like the same extent, which is just as well given the paucity of slow bowling talent in this country. Nevertheless, whichever spinner is chosen to play for the Proteas, he can expect a full blooded assault from the Aussies. This is the way that Darren Lehmann wants his team to play; to search and destroy weakness.

For this reason, it is important that Kallis is replaced by a bowler who can give Graeme Smith control when he needs to rest his fast bowlers.

We do not have a spinner who can perform that role, so it will have to be someone like Ryan McLaren who is also a capable batsman and a brilliant fielder.

Whether he is bowling well enough at the moment is a matter for the selectors to decide but I cannot see another cricketer who brings as much to the party as does McLaren.

Without Kallis, each of the remaining batsmen will have to step up his game just enough to fill the gap. This may not be as easy as it sounds.

One of the strengths of this Australian team has been their ability to identify and exploit the weaknesses of opposing batsmen. Smith, who has some Mitchell Johnson-inflicted scars, has thus far been able deal with all sorts of plans designed to either curb his run scoring or dismiss him but I am not so sure that the others are prepared for the relentless probing of weakness that these Aussies have done so well.

Hashim Amla has entered a period of some sloppiness in his batting. He was bowled several times by the Indians and this is unusual for a world class batsman. The reason for this seems to be a laziness of foot work that has not previously been apparent in his batting. For a player of his obvious intelligence and application this is easily remedied but he needs to do this before the series starts. Australian bowlers traditionally aim to hit the top of off stump, which is typically left unguarded by poor foot movement.

This will be a very big series for AB de Villiers who will have to play with more discipline than in the days of Kallis. The Aussies know how to feed the egos of great players to their own advantage. AB is in good form but this form needs to be converted into a couple of really big innings if the Proteas are to win this series. He cannot afford any of the bizarre dismissals that have characterised his batting in recent years. Will his wicket keeping stand in the way of the impact his batting must have?

For JP Duminy this may be his last chance to secure a place in the team. Pretty thirties count for nothing in Test cricket.

JP made a temporary name for himself against the Australians with a match-winning 166 in Melbourne but he has done little since to justify his inclusion in the team ahead of Ashwell Prince who was unlucky to have been left out of a team that he had served so well.

Sadly, the Aussies are spoilt for choice when it comes to JP’s weaknesses. It will require a determined effort from Duminy if he is not to be the weak link in the SA batting.

Alviro Petersen continues to hang on to his place in the team despite a succession of soft dismissals.

He remains the obvious choice to open the batting and is in decent form but he needs to deal with the doubts about his ability to concentrate for long periods. He is an unflappable cricketer and his important job this series is to see off Mitchell Johnson.

Although these are still early days for him, Faf du Plessis is building an impressive record in Test cricket. This may be a difficult series for such an on-sided batsman but he is made of stern stuff, as the Aussies know only too well. His technique will have received scrutiny from Lehmann and others who will seek to dry up his runs on the leg side.

Each of our top six batsman has a particular challenge against “the best attack in the world”.

The fate of this series will probably rest on their ability to meet and deal with these challenges.

Challenges that will greet them with an intensity that will be foreign to most of them, who have really only known an Australian team in decline.

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