Proteas in the mood for swing

2009-02-24 00:00

THE Wanderers has traditionally been a fast-bowler’s paradise, with a hard track giving good carry to the catching men waiting behind the stumps.

Tomorrow’s start of the first Test between Australia this week could see a different element come into play: some serious swing.

January has been particularly wet in Johannesburg, and all indications suggest that the Test itself may be affected by some rain.

The gloomy blanket that has hung over the Wanderers for much of this week will be welcomed by Graeme Smith’s posse of pacemen — as long as it doesn’t bring too much rain.

If the cloud cover stays, the likes of Dale Steyn and Jacques Kallis will come into their own, with Steyn adding late swerve to his sharp pace.

Indeed, South Africa will be even stronger favourites to take the first Test because Australia’s attack has little or no record of devastating swing.

Ben Hilfenhaus will almost certainly play under the current weather conditions, as he has the ability to bowl a good outswinger.

Even left-armer Doug Bollinger will consider himself unlucky if he misses out on a spot after a reportedly far sharper spell in the second innings against the SA Board President’s XI at the weekend.

The Proteas will fancy themselves against this attack because, apart from a Mitchell Johnson blitzkrieg in Perth, they handled just about everything the Aussie bowlers threw at them.

Smith’s own frailty to the late swing in the early overs seems to have been ironically corrected by his elbow troubles.

The big left-hander looks less eager to work the ball through midwicket, a practice no doubt enforced by his limitations when using his elbow.

In Australia, particularly in Melbourne, Smith seemed determined to play a lot straighter and thereby leave himself less susceptible to playing all-round balls that move at the last possible moment.

Smith’s recent form in the Pro20 Series revealed that he was still in good enough nick, considering that he has been on the mending table for much of the last month.

His presence is crucial, and though he was not missed in the triumphant one-day series that followed the Test heroics, the Aussies will certainly not relish his return.

The Smith of 2008 re-invented an image that had bordered on cocky and controversial, and he now stands as arguably the most respected Test captain in world cricket.

A major aspect of his leadership is the example he sets with his own performance.

South Africa have yet to lose a match in which the burly skipper has rattled up a century. The Smith that toured Australia seemed content with his place at the helm of a ship that is sailing along merrily.

His more laid-back approach has also seen him increasingly delegate some of his responsibilities to seasoned professionals like Neil Mckenzie and Jacques Kallis.

This more relaxed approach seems to have had a profound effect on a team who just a year ago had no “proper” Test opener, a raw pace attack and a much-maligned slow bowler. Such is the way in modern sport: the self-same characters are now a series win away from being officially recognised as the world’s best Test team.

But they will have to take the crown away from Australia first.

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