Preview: Proteas-Australia legacy to re-start

Just as a gastronome would moan if Heston Blumenthal served up only one course at The Fat Duck, so too will cricket fans lament the decision to make Australia's tour of South Africa so brief.

Updated: October 12, 2011 17:55 IST
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Just as a gastronome would moan if Heston Blumenthal served up only one course at The Fat Duck, so too will cricket fans lament the decision to make Australia's tour of South Africa so brief.

Three years ago, these teams delivered the ultimate degustation experience. Over three months and across two continents, they dished up helping after helping of the highest quality cricket, and the final 3-3 score line left viewers simultaneously satisfied and hungry for more.

There was the near-record chase of 414 in Perth, completed by AB de Villiers and the debutant JP Duminy. There was Graeme Smith's courageous return to the crease at the SCG, where he tried in vain to save the Test, batting with a broken left hand and painful right elbow. There was Phillip Hughes' twin centuries in Durban, in his second Test. Every moment was worth watching.

By contrast, a tour consisting of two Tests, three one-day internationals and two Twenty20s will not satiate fans, but it will at least provide a tantalising taste of what the teams can offer. The squeeze has been necessitated by the tight calendar - Australia need to get home by late November for their home Tests - and their next tour of South Africa will include four Tests to compensate.

There are still plenty of fascinating elements on the menu. Both teams have new captains since their last meeting, Australia in all three formats, South Africa in ODIs and T20s. Both sides have new coaches, South Africa a former champion player, Gary Kirsten, and Australia a stand-in mentor, Troy Cooley. Australia have slipped to fourth on the ICC Test rankings, a far cry from the battle for the Test mace that occurred last time, while South Africa remain at No.2.

Despite the rankings, the teams are close to being evenly matched. Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Lonwabo Tsotsobe will provide a fierce challenge to Australia's top order, but equally the conditions should suit Australia's attack. They will note with interest that South Africa haven't won a Test series at home since beating Bangladesh three years ago.

Perhaps the most fascinating sub-plot surrounds Mitchell Johnson, who was one of the key antagonists in the drama of 2008-09. In those six Tests he took 33 wickets, second only to Dale Steyn. Johnson broke Smith's hand with a nasty delivery in Sydney, was unplayable during a fearsome late-afternoon spell at the WACA, swung the ball expertly at the Wanderers and drew blood from Jacques Kallis' chin in Durban. For good measure, he also scored a couple of half-centuries and his maiden Test hundred.

Johnson has failed to hit those heights since. He has slipped back into his old ways, angling the ball across right-handers and hoping they make a mistake. Australia hope a return to South African conditions will turn his form around. They need him firing in an attack likely to feature the bustling but injury-prone Ryan Harris, and the steady but far from frightening Trent Copeland.

At least Johnson is - for now - still part of the Test team. The same cannot be said of Marcus North, who impressed with a century on debut in Johannesburg but thereafter proved to be unacceptably inconsistent, Simon Katich, who has been usurped by Hughes, and Ben Hilfenhaus, another new man in that 2009 series who now cannot find a place in the side. Not to mention that Australia have been through five Test spinners since then.

South Africa's personnel list has had fewer changes, the key departures being Makhaya Ntini to retirement and Duminy to poor form in the longer format. It is hard to believe that Duminy never matched the highs of his first two Tests, in Perth and Melbourne, so classy did he appear at the time. The veteran wicketkeeper Mark Boucher remains in the side for now, but could be under pressure as the summer wears on.

Not that it is entirely clear who is part of South Africa's Test outfit at the moment, so long has it been since their last match. They haven't played a Test since the first week of January, when they drew with India in Cape Town to level the series. And while a break between contests is desirable, nine months without a Test is far from ideal. They have only two matches in which to readjust to the longest format; last time South Africa enjoyed such a lengthy hiatus was after the 2009 Tests against Australia, and in their next series, at home against England, it took them until the fourth match of the series to register a win.

Australia are in precisely the opposite situation after their series win in Sri Lanka last month. Some members of the squad, such as Shane Watson and Michael Hussey, have hardly had a chance to sit down between the Sri Lankan Tests, Champions League Twenty20 in India and the limited-overs games in South Africa.

The last time an Australian team made back-to-back Test tours without a significant break or a home summer in between was in 1969-70, when Bill Lawry's side won in India and was then demolished by South Africa. The abbreviated length of trips these days should prevent any similar burnout this time.

That will be helped by the schedule, which eases the players in with two Twenty20s and three ODIs. South Africa begin without the injured de Villiers, who is not only the world's No.2-ranked ODI batsman but is also the newly-appointed captain in the shorter formats. Whether he is fit for the Tests remains to be seen.

In the meantime, Hashim Amla has been given the leadership of the Twenty20 and one-day teams. They haven't played a T20 since January or an ODI since exiting the World Cup in March. Their rust needs to be shed quickly.

Australia begin with Cameron White in charge for the T20s, before Michael Clarke takes over for the one-dayers and the Tests. Since taking over from Ricky Ponting after the World Cup, Clarke has proven himself a thoughtful and innovative captain. His men will be more than a match for South Africa.

The only shame is the length of the offering, for another months-long degustation would be welcome. Still, a taste of Heston's snail porridge is better than nothing.

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