Run machine Steve Smith averaged 137,40 in Australia's Ashes triumph. Picture: EPA
Besides not being able to win a World Cup  or any other ICC tournament  the other major itch that South African cricketers need to scratch is the failure to beat Australia at home in a Test series since the country’s return from international sporting isolation.

Seven Test series’, encompassing 20 Tests, and the best South Africa have managed are 1-1 draws in 1993/94, when led by Kepler Wessels, and in 2011/12, when Graeme Smith’s post-World Cup redemption started for the SA public.

The series’ between the two have always been closely fought, even the 2005/06 series which the Australians swept  the matches were very competitive. The great Australian team of 2001/02, captained by Steve Waugh, which hammered South Africa by an innings and 360 runs in the first Test at the Wanderers, succumbed to defeat in the final match, where a Herschelle Gibbs century saw South Africa chase 335 in the fourth innings.

“This is a good challenge for this group to keep that (unbeaten record). We got beaten by them at home a year ago, which was a bit of a low point for Australian cricket, so it will be great if we could turn the tide here in South Africa,” Australia’s captain Steve Smith said in Johannesburg yesterday.

“Coming to South Africa the conditions are the most similar to what you get in Australia, it’s probably the most similar for two countries in the world.”

Indeed, conditions are very similar, which explains South Africa’s success in Australia in the last decade in which they’ve won the last three series’ Down Under. It doesn’t take the Australian players as long to adapt to what they’ll face here as would be the case in England, where the ball swings more and India, where it spins.

The Australians arrive in South Africa off the back of another dominant home Ashes display. That was also the case four years ago, with Mitchell Johnson in his pomp. He would continue his amazing form in the first Test at Centurion, where he destroyed the Proteas with one of the great fast bowling performances seen in this country, claiming 12/127.

This time there is no singular stand out among Australia’s bowlers. Their dominance over England, was a collective effort. Josh Hazlewood, Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins and Nathan Lyon finished that series with 20 or more wickets each.

What most are looking forward too is that battle between Australia’s quick bowlers, and whoever SA chooses out of Dale Steyn, who’s expected to be fit for the first Test in Durban, Morné Morkel, Vernon Philander, Kagiso Rabada and Lungi Ngidi.

“Both fast bowling line-ups are really good,” said Smith. “It’s going to be a fiery series for the batters ... tough work. I think its great, I’m excited by it. You love going up against the best bowlers from around the world and South Africa have two who bowl with good pace, Rabada and Morkel. And Philander challenges your defence for long periods of time.”

Overall, Australia’s bowling line-up has few weaknesses, and SA won’t be able to push for fast and bouncy pitches like they did for India, because they are conditions in which the Australians will thrive. Smith kept an eye on the series with India, where pitches were a major talking point, but a bit like the Indians, he will encourage his players to “get on with it,” and adapt to whatever they come across.

Smith was magnificent against England - scoring 687 runs in seven innings at an average of 137.40 and certainly in the Test format is in the same category as India's Virat Kohli, who scored the only hundred in the recent Test series here.

The Marsh brothers, Shaun and Mitchell - the latter coming into the side midway through the Ashes -were the other outstanding batsmen for the Australians this summer and even though there’s been concern expressed about his form at home, Dave Warner, still scored over 400 runs against the English.

South Africa will do well to pay no heed to talk of Warner being on the wane; in the 2014 series he scored over 500 runs, making three centuries, two of those in the deciding Test. He’s a feisty character and, perhaps feeling he has a point to prove here, will inspire him.

Australia’s selection, if everyone’s fit, will be a whole lot simpler than South Africa’s.

The composition of SA's starting eleven will once more be under scrutiny, with the balance thereof sure to be a hot discussion, between selectors, coach Ottis Gibson and skipper Faf du Plessis. The Proteas batting, largely failed against India, with no one managing to score a hundred. There were 10 half-centuries, but while that may have sufficed against the Indians, it won’t do over the course of a four-Test series, on what will most likely be less ‘sporty’ surfaces, against the Australians.

With Steyn set to to return, do the selectors stick with five bowlers as they did against India? Is Quinton de Kock good enough to bat as high as No6? The recent series against India suggests not, and there may even be temptation to start Heinrich Klaasen.

Should SA pick seven batsmen, with the wicket-keeper at No7, thereby supplementing the batting, but going in with just three seamers and the spinner? And then which of the seam bowlers to leave out?

There are plenty of questions for the hosts to answer in terms of selection, more than for the Australians, which adds further intrigue to a series with rich potential.

Australia in South Africa (post-isolation)

1993/94: 1-1 (3 Tests)

1996/97: 2-1 Australia (3 Tests)

2001/02: 2-1 Australia (3 Tests)

2005/06: 3-0 Australia (3 Tests)

2008/09: 2-1 Australia (3 Tests)

2011/12: 1-1 (2 Tests)

2013/14: 2-1 Australia (3 Tests)


1st Test - Kingsmead, March 1-5

2nd Test - St George’s Park, March 9-13

3rd Test - Newlands, March 22-26

4th Test - March 30- April 3

Australia Squad: David Warner, Cameron Bancroft, Usman Khawaja, Steve Smith (capt), Shaun Marsh, Mitchell Marsh, Tim Paine, Pat Cummins, Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood, Nathan Lyon, Jhye Richardson, Chadd Sayers, Peter Handscomb

Sunday Independent

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