Proteas must forget the triumph and fight from scratch

2009-02-20 00:00

THE coach of a particular Under-15 football team, which provides excellent entertainment for doting parents week in week out, is fond of telling his players: “Come on, it’s still 0-0”.

He invariably delivers this mantra from the touchline immediately after his team have scored, and last week he was offering the same information after his gifted side had moved into a commanding 12-0 lead. His mathematics may seem flawed, but his intentions are impeccable as he implores his winning youngsters to remain disciplined and focused, to stay hungry and never become complacent or sloppy.

Proteas coach Mickey Arthur will surely be conveying a similar message to his feted players when they assemble in Johannesburg next week and begin their preparations for the first Test against Australia.

Perhaps the most important challenge facing South Africa will be to forget about the events of the past two months, to forget about the Test triumphs in Perth and Melbourne, to forget about the first-ever Test series win in Australia, to forget about the one-day series victory, to forget about the No.1 world ranking and to forget about all the overblown praise and adulation that has followed each and every member of the squad ever since.

All this will count for nothing on the scoreboard at the Wanderers. When the two umpires make their way to the middle next Thursday morning, it really will be 0-0.

Ricky Ponting knows the score. The experienced Australian captain (at 34 a veteran of 128 Test matches and a connoisseur in the baggy green art of “mental disintegration”) strolled into OR Tambo International airport this week and announced South Africa would start the series as “overwhelming favourites” before observing, quietly and artfully, that “the pressure could come back on them”.

He added “there’s a lot of expectation among their fans” and then, changing tack, began comparing the “huge task” ahead of his team to the challenge that faced an equally unheralded Australian squad, which upset the odds and beat the West Indies in 1995 and launched a dozen years of world domination.

“Everybody knows we are missing the experience of Lee and Clark in our bowling attack,” he said, “but Mitchell Johnson, Peter Siddle and Doug Bollinger showed in the Sydney Test they’ve got what it takes at this level and we believe they’re good enough to take 20 wickets for us to win in any conditions. If you look back to the tour to the West Indies in 1995, that is where Glenn McGrath stood up and made a name for himself. This tour is a chance for a Peter Siddle or a Ben Hilfenhaus or a Doug Bollinger to forge their own identity at international level.”

So he hopes.

In winning the first two Test matches in Australia, the SA batsmen compiled commanding innings totals of 281, 414 for four, 459 and 183 for one, emphatically dominating a bowling attack that sorely missed the cutting edge for so long provided by the recently retired legends, McGrath and Shane Warne.

If the SA upper order can maintain their recent form, can bat positively enough to ensure the bad balls are soundly smacked and judiciously enough to avoid giving their wickets away cheaply, then it is difficult to see the visitors bowling them out twice at either the Wanderers or Kingsmead, or Newlands.

This will provide Dale Steyn, Makhaya Ntini, Morne Morkel and the rest with the invitation to charge in and attack the Australian batting; whether they bowl them out twice within five days in one, two or three Test matches may then determine whether the home side clinches the series 1-0, 2-0 or 3-0.

That sounds simple, but this contest will probably prove anything but straightforward. It is conceivable that SA can dominate from the first ball, ideally reaching stumps on the first day of the first Test at 350-plus for very few wickets and, metaphorically and literally, driving Ponting’s team onto the back foot.

More likely, unfortunately, the Australians will come out fighting. They will scrap and snarl for every run, and the advantage will swing one way and then the other through an epic series.

Lights, camera, action…

•Edward Griffiths is a journalist, author, former CEO of SA Rugby, general manager of SABC sport and involved in various SA bid campaigns.

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