As Australia were completing the Test cricket humiliation of England in Sydney in the New Year, South Africa were about to embark on an equally impressive victory over the touring Indians in their First Test.
Guarding against complacency
South Africa has subsequently completed an imperious series victory over India meaning that we are in for a cracking series when Australia visits in March. South Africa are looking ominously good on their home patch and Australia cannot be complacent.
This should be exactly the kind of challenge Steve Smith and his team are looking for following so soon after their Ashes success. The thrashing that the Aussies have taken at the hands of a very good England one-day team in recent weeks should not derail from the momentum they have in the red ball format.
Ashes momentum and confidence
Australia will obviously have great form going into this series with most of the team now nicely bedded in. What Australian fans can really look forward to is the fact that the 2018 Australian version has a perfect blend of youth, talent and experience.
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If there is a concern then that lends towards the strength – or potential lack thereof – in the batting should Steve Smith be a mere mortal and get out cheaply. However, Shaun Marsh has had an impressive second coming as a Test match batsmen and this will take the pressure off David Warner and Steve Smith as the principal source of runs. The big hundred made by Usman Khawaja in Sydney came just at the right time as he looks to cement his place as Australia’s number three. Add in Mitchell Marsh’s breakthrough as a long-form player and the useful contributions from the likes of Tim Paine and Pat Cummins, the Australians do have the depth in their batting to consistently post challenging totals.
Bancroft needs runs
A key selection decision has been made with Cam Bancroft retaining his place despite a poor showing against the English. On current form, the South African bowlers will fancy their chances of getting Bancroft out early and targeting Steve Smith when their pacemen are fresh. However, I think it is right that Bancroft has been given this series against the Proteas to see whether he can make the grade as a Test cricketer. Bancroft has had the starts in the Ashes and, rather like the English batters, he now needs to find the necessary application and shot selection to kick on to more substantial scores.
Ngidi’s emergence boosts the South African bowling attack
The South Africans will offer more bowling firepower with Kagiso Rabada and Morne Morkel to the fore, than the English medium pacers. We should not forget the influence of Vernon Philander either as he will complement the pace and intimidation of Morkel and Rabada alongside a (hopefully) fit again Dale Steyn.
If the great Steyn is not fit then Lungi Ngidi comes in as the ideal replacement. On his Test debut, Ngidi announced himself on the world stage by castling the Indians at Centurion with Virat Kohli a notable scalp among his seven victims. Just maybe we are seeing the next generation of South African fast bowlers coming through with Rabada and Ngidi ready to take on the mantle that Morkel and Steyn have carried with such distinction over the last decade.
South Africa has a formidable bowling attack on surfaces that will offer a bit more to the bowlers than the tracks that we saw in Australia during the Ashes series just gone.
Guile and variety the way forward for the Aussie bowlers
Australia will be up against batsmen who have the ability to make big hundreds. The return of AB de Villiers is huge for South Africa and Hashim Amla will be hungry to overcome an indifferent 12 months and get back to scoring hundreds. Faf du Plessis is developing nicely as a captain and as a batsman, and Quinton de Kock’s aggressive presence in the lower order should also be noted. De Kock is capable of turning a match in one session with his stroke play.
It will be interesting to see how Australian’s pace attack approach this series. ‘Bombing’ the South Africans will not work and hitting the top of off stump as a favored line should bring rewards. Therefore, Josh Hazelwood will be key to Australia’s bowling plans.
South Africa has the talent to win
South Africa will have to play out of their skins to beat Australia but they are capable of an upset in this series. They will have home support and the return of two talismen in the form of AB de Villiers and Dale Steyn to complement the world-class talents of Hashim Amla, Vernon Philander and Kagiso Rabada.
Australia will need to be as meticulous in their planning as they were in the build-up to the Ashes series. South Africa presents a different kind of challenge to Steve Smith and his men than what they handed by the English. The Australian batsmen will face genuine pace and one of the best swing bowlers in the game in the shape of Philander. Amla and De Villiers are proven world-class performers with the bat and the Proteas have a nice blend of accumulators and dashers in their line-up. The Australia’s pace trio will have to work hard for their wickets and Nathan Lyon should expect a more aggressive approach to his bowling by the South African batters.
These are exciting times for Australian cricket and they have a perfect platform to work off from their recent Ashes success. Steve Smith’s team need to win away from home, especially in a place like South Africa, to keep fulfilling the potential of this squad of players and edge closer to the number one spot. Winning in South Africa would be a big achievement and they have every chance of doing it.