CAPE TOWN – The Proteas may still be engrossed in white-ball cricket, and somehow managed by hook or Heinrich Klaasen pull to set up a T20 series decider at Newlands tomorrow, but it is the red-ball that takes centre- stage from next week in Durban.
The Aussies are in town, armed with a Test record in South Africa that “skriks for niks!” Australia have not lost a Test series in the Republic since Ali Bacher’s Springboks trounced the Baggy Greens 4-0 with a team that contained special talents like the Pollock brothers (Graeme and Peter), Eddie Barlow, Mike Proctor, Dennis Lindsay and Co back in 1969-1970.
It was 27 isolated years before the two teams could do battle again, and the 1-1 draw in the first series upon South Africa’s return to international cricket in 1993 remains the Proteas’ best result on home soil since.
Graeme Smith’s World No 1 team equalled this achievement in a truncated two-match series in 2011, but even with a team blessed with some of the best the world game has ever seen like Dale Steyn, Jacques Kallis, Hashim Amla and AB de Villiers, they too could not cross the final frontier.
The results at home have been even more perplexing for the Proteas have been the dominant team Down Under for the past three series. Since JP Duminy broke the curse with an iconic innings at the MCG in 2008 to seal South Africa’s maiden series win on Australian soil, the Proteas have done the “treble” on the Aussies at home.
Steve Smith’s side arrived in South Africa full of confidence after thrashing England 4-0 in the Ashes at home. Central to the Aussies’ success was the form of the three fast bowlers Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and the resurgent Pat Cummins.
Many are expecting South Africa to match fire-with-fire in a blood-thirsty shootout with the Proteas unleashing their own “Four Horseman of the Apocalypse”in the form of Kagiso Rabada, Vernon Philander, Morne Morkel and new find Lungi Ngidi.
Smith certainly thinks so: “There could be some good short-pitched bowling from both sides, to the batters, to the tail, everyone from both sides,” said Smith. “I think it’s great. I’m excited by it. You love coming up against the best bowlers around the world.”
If anything is to be taken from the India Test series, which the Proteas won 2-1, the pitches will all have a decent grass covering.
I, however, believe the contrary is required if the Proteas are going to break Australia’s stranglehold here in South Africa. Forget the green grass. Instead, it should be raging turners to bring South Africa’s left-arm spinner Keshav Maharaj more into the game.
For all the Proteas’ batting problems against the Indian duo Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal during the ODI series when the wrist-spinners claimed 30 wickets, the Test unit is much more adept at facing quality spin.
Captain Faf du Plessis should be back, while Amla and De Villiers remain among some of the premier players of spin in the world.
In turn, Australia have a dismal record against spin, particularly of the left-arm variation, in recent years. The image of Pakistan’s orthodox spinner Zulfiqar Babar still sends shivers down the spines of many Australian batsmen, while Sri Lankan veteran Rangana Herath has equally inflicted his dose of trauma.
Smith admits the Aussies enjoy touring South Africa because it has the “most similar conditions to Australia”.
South Africa will never be the subcontinent with its intense heat, dry air and humidity, but the 22-yards at the four Test venues across the country has to more brown than green.
Curators have been under the microscope all summer. They will be even more now than ever before over the course of the next month.