Cape Town – Perhaps the biggest risk for No 1-ranked South Africa as they prepare to do battle with India from Wednesday at the Wanderers in the first of two Tests is fatally putting the cart before the horse.
After the poor resistance put up by several of the tourists’ batsmen – who will now also see service at the Bullring – in the preceding one-day international series against the Proteas’ renowned pace attack, there is fairly understandable public optimism on our shores that the Tests may be largely one-way traffic as well.
And a belief may also be taking shape that the next home series later in the summer, against southern hemisphere arch-rivals Australia, actually shapes up now as a tougher and more compelling assignment than the India combat.
That school of thought will only have blossomed with confirmation from events in Perth on Tuesday that the Baggy Greens will pleasingly arrive as holders of the prestigious Ashes –they have just seized back ownership of the “urn” from England for the first time since 2009 by going 3-0 up at the WACA in the five-Test series.
Many neutrals, including this one, had been leaning slightly toward England keeping the Ashes, given that even a shared series Down Under would have done the trick – instead the Aussies have lifted their game dramatically after the 3-0 thumping in England earlier in the year with resurgent showings from stalwart players like Mitchell Johnson, David Warner and Brad Haddin.
They have already completely reversed that score-line and Alastair Cook’s demoralised charges could be candidates for a humiliating 5-0 clean sweep in the remaining Tests at Melbourne and Sydney.
In that event, Australia would reportedly rocket from their current – and lowly by their demanding standards -- fifth on the Test rankings to third, and closing the gap nicely on South Africa and India.
The two sides about to do battle at the Wanderers will not change their places in the pecking order, regardless of what happens between them in the remainder of December, as they are solidly enough rooted at first and second respectively for the time being.
But the Australians, so much more accustomed than India to playing on faster, truer tracks, might well give the Proteas a better run for their money in February and early March.
Also in favour of that series, mercifully comprising three Tests rather than the less credible two-game variety, is that it has not been dogged by the pre-tour pettiness and acrimony that marked the controversial, re-jigged arrangements between South Africa and India.
The cold fact also remains that, even with Graeme Smith’s charges ruling the roost in recent times over the Aussies courtesy of successive away series triumphs in 2008/09 and 2012/13, South Africa have not yet actually beaten the Aussies in a series on our pitches since Ali Bacher’s 4-0 immortals of 1969/70.
So the stakes will be as high as ever and the only drawback from a marketing point of view will be that the foes lock horns once again outside the prime “Boxing Day and New Year” period, because neither country likes to surrender their lucrative rights to home series then.
But a big irony this season, of course, is that the once-keynote series against the Indians has now been stripped of the traditional New Year fixture at Newlands anyway, angering many traditionalists.
The problem experienced in February and March, when Michael Clarke and his troops are here, is that many crossover South African sports fans will have switched their main allegiance to Super Rugby by then – the annual SANZAR competition starts on Saturday February 15 with two all-SA clashes between the Cheetahs and Lions (Bloemfontein) and Sharks and Bulls (Durban).
That is also day four of the first Test (February 12-16) at Centurion, although Highveld dual enthusiasts will at least not be going to Loftus for the derby.
The second Test is also handily scheduled for Port Elizabeth (February 20-24): the local sports public do not have a Super Rugby franchise to follow next season, following the Kings’ relegation.
When the series reaches Newlands for a possible third-Test decider (March 1-5), the match between the Stormers and Hurricanes has been nicely timed for the Friday night of February 28, a few hours ahead of the start of Test hostilities the next morning.
Before any thoughts of the SA v Australia series, however, the Proteas must be very wary of taking their eye off the ball against India, despite the tourists’ ODI woes and the weather-induced whole abandonment of their much-needed two-day warm-up match for the Test at Benoni a few days ago.
For all the talk of a potentially fast and bouncy track tailor-made for the home side, India have not yet lost a Test at the Wanderers.
They earned draws there in 1992/93 and 1996/97, and got a famous Sree Sreesanth-inspired win at the venue in 2006/07.
That should be enough to keep an already mature SA Test side’s feet properly on the ground for the first encounter, shouldn’t it?
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