Lots to ponder for Ponting

2009-02-23 00:00

AUSTRALIA’S warm-up match ahead of this week’s first Test at the Wanderers has given them a welcome headache, if ever there was such a thing.

With Andrew Symonds back in Queensland trying to make yet another fresh start, the crucial all-rounder’s berth is vacant and the Potchefstroom three-dayer provided a perfect platform for the candidates, Andrew McDonald and Marcus North, to square off.

North, the 30-year old captain of Western Australia, starred with two half-centuries and a six-wicket haul with his tidy off-spin in the SA Board President’s second innings.

McDonald had the inside track after playing in the Sydney Test against the Proteas last month, but North has certainly put his hand up to make a Test bow at the “Bullring”.

South African coach Mickey Arthur said yesterday that Australia would be taking a big risk if they choose four seam bowlers and two part-time spinners in North and Michael Clarke for the first Test.

“In the past they had Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath, who could both strike and stop the game.

Their biggest issue now is who can stop the game for them, who can kill off the runs? We had Jacques Kallis and Paul Harris to stop them scoring in Australia.”

Much will depend on the sort of track in use at the Wanderers, and with Johannesburg having had a rather wet January, McDonald may yet get the nod.

South Africa’s starting team is already known, but a point of some concern will be the lack of real match practice for most of the Proteas.

While Ricky Ponting’s side had a feisty Antipodean one-day seriest, most of Graeme Smith’s men have been resting.

Aside from Hashim Amla, JP Duminy and Smith himself, most of the side have had little or no hard cricket to prepare for a full-on Australian backlash.

Arthur has earned a reputation as a stickler for detail, and one would have to assume he has a plan to shake off the cobwebs, particularly from his pace trio of Dale Steyn, Makhaya Ntini and Morne Morkel.

They are all rhythm bowlers, and their success in Australia was down to bowling a lot of overs before that series to get things on track. Morkel, in particular, struggled against Bangladesh prior to leaving for Australia, but gradually improved as the summer wore on.

A key element in the Proteas’ series triumph in Australia was the fast start they made in Perth.

Ponting is acutely aware of this, and will no doubt be looking to catch South Africa a little under-done.

For the Proteas, the pressure of being favourites will be a new responsibility. 2008 was a year in which they steadily built a reputation as a side not to be under-estimated. The challenge is to now justify their significant hype by playing the same brand of nerveless cricket.

A number of the home batsmen will also be looking to kick on and make big scores against Australia.

Aside from Smith, Duminy and to an extent AB de Villiers, the South African top order threatened, but seldom took proceedings away from inexperienced Aussie bowling.

If Kallis, Amla and Neil Mckenzie can chalk up telling contributions in the opening Test, Australia will struggle to catch the home side, who have the more balanced attack to boot.

The series, then, could ultimately come down to South Africa’s ruthlessness with the bat.

Smith knows he has the bowling unit to unravel Australia. Ponting, however, will be hoping that one of his rookies chooses this tour as the moment to make a name for himself.

If not, it could be another long hard slog for Ponting’s tourists.

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