Perth: It’s been a rocky ride Down Under for the under-performing Proteas, but they’ve kept their unbeaten overseas record for this year, and tomorrow at the apparently seamer-friendly Waca, they have the opportunity to nick the series.
Yes, it’s almost like a Premier League match in England, where the away team absorbs intense pressure for two-thirds of the match before breaking away in the last quarter to steal the points.
The Aussies have so far thrown everything at the Proteas; their defence has creaked a couple of times, but they have yet to concede. Perhaps somewhere in the Aussie mindset there is emerging the unwelcome thought about what more they need to do.
Of course, for the Proteas, this isn’t just any away game. It’s a Test that climaxes a series against one of their toughest opponents, as well as the end of an outstanding year in which they have the chance to repeat their annus mirabilis of 2008, when they last beat England and Australia away. Such glories don’t come along very often, and there were times in Adelaide last week when the dream was on the verge of being snuffed out.
There is also, of course, the thought that they were last beaten in an away series in 2006 (by Sri Lanka), a remarkable record which illustrates just how skilful the Proteas are at adapting to foreign conditions.
So far this calendar year, the Proteas have clinched their home series 2-1 against Sri Lanka in January, beaten New Zealand 1-0 in March and England 2-0 in July and August. Now, with two drawn Tests against the Aussies in November, they are less than a week away from the end of their Test programme for the year.
The No 1 world ranking is, of course, still up for grabs. A win for the Aussies would see them leapfrog the Proteas, while a win the other way would underscore South Africa’s place at the top.
South Africa’s coach, Gary Kirsten, acknowledged that in the last couple of years, “a new value” had been placed on the ICC world rankings, and that it would be very important to the players to remain at the top of a pile in which the top three teams were jostling for possession of the ICC mace, while Pakistan and India were not far away in positions four and five.
Reflecting on the intense competition between his team, Australia and England, Kirsten said that in his day, Steve Waugh’s Australians were “way ahead” of everyone else. “The current situation is good for the game,” he declared.
He said it was “over the top” to suggest that tomorrow’s Test was the most important since the end of isolation, not least because there were a number of other contenders for that honour (the series-clinching win at the MCG in 2008 would be most people’s favourite).
“I prefer to reflect on the remarkable year we’ve had, and the fact that despite playing in alien conditions in New Zealand, England and Australia, we haven’t lost one of the eight Tests we’ve played. I think that’s pretty special. If we can win this Test, or remain unbeaten, it would be massive for us,” he said.
On a strange day in Perth, with a strong, blustery wind, frequent showers and a plunging barometer, the South Africans were unable to get a look at the Waca pitch which remained under the covers. Jacques Kallis was understandably the centre of attention as he tested out his strained right hamstring.
Team physio Brandon Jackson said that the all-rounder would “definitely” not bowl, but he was “hopeful” that he would be fit enough to field (in the slips) and bat.
“Normally we’d ask him to rest it for a week or so, but we don’t have that time. We’re working hard on it, getting him to practise the kind of movements he’ll need for when he bats,” Jackson said.
“We can’t strap it up, so Jacques will be in some discomfort and pain for the match. All I can do is get him as fit as I can, and then leave it to Gary and Graeme (Smith) to decide if that’s good enough,” he added.
Jackson said Kallis would undergo a fitness test this afternoon, after which a decision will be made on whether he will play.
The other injury worry, Vernon Philander, had his first day completely free of stiffness yesterday, and he bowled with apparent freedom in the nets. “I’m confident he’ll be fine,” Jacskon said.
If Kallis plays (as a batsman only), South Africa will almost certainly have to return to their former team shape of six specialist batsmen and four specialist bowlers.
With Faf du Plessis striking a memorable hundred on debut at Adelaide, he will surely occupy the No 6 position behind AB de Villiers, with the left-arm spin of Robin Peterson augmenting the pace quartet of Philander, Rory Kleinveldt, Dale Steyn and Morné Morkel.
This means that of the XI who did duty at Adelaide, Jacques Rudolph and leg-spinner Imran Tahir will sit the Perth match out.
TEAMS FOR THE WACA
Proteas (likely): Graeme Smith (capt), Alviro Petersen, Hashim Amla, Jacques Kallis, AB de Villiers, Faf du Plessis, Robin Peterson, Vernon Philander, Dale Steyn, Rory Kleinveldt, Morné Morkel.
Australia (from): David Warner, Ed Cowan, Shane Watson, Ricky Ponting, Michael Clarke (capt), Mike Hussey, Matt Wade (w/k), Peter Siddle, Mitchell Johnson, Mitchell Starc, Ben Hilfenhaus, Josh Hazlewood, John Hastings, Nathan Lyon.
Umpires: Asad Rauf (Pakistan) and Richard Kettleborough (England).
TV umpire: Billy Bowden (New Zealand).
Match referee: Ranjan Madugalle (Sri Lanka).
Hours: 10.30am-12.30pm; 1.10pm-3.10pm; 3.30pm-5.30pm (SA time: 4.30am-6.30am; 7.10am-9.10am; 9.30am-11.30am).
ICC Test rankings
1 South Africa 120, 2 England 117, 3 Australia 116, 4 Pakistan 109, 5 India 106.
Jacques Kallis needs 59 runs to become the fourth player to score 13 000 Test runs.
Dale Steyn needs eight wickets to become the fourth South African bowler to reach 300 wickets.
First Test: 11/12/1970
The Waca Test record:
Tests played: 39
Highest score: 380 by Matthew Hayden (Aus) v Zimbabwe 2003/04
Best bowling: 8/24 by Glenn McGrath (Aus) v Pakistan 2004/5
SA record: Played two, won one (2008/09), drew one (2005/06).