Australia in SA
Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Biff v Mitch a critical Test duel?
Cape Town – The recent Australian formula
for Mitchell Johnson, their main strike weapon, has been to employ him as first
change bowler ... expect him to probably “jump the queue” and return to the
helm of the attack at Newlands from Wednesday.
And the reason is not especially hard to
find, if that does indeed turn out to be the case in the keenly-awaited first
Test: the Baggy Greens will want to get him blasting immediately at Graeme
Smith, the South African captain and opening batsman who has always cherished
genuinely leading from the front.
Preventing him from doing so in this short
series is, no doubt, a strong Aussie objective.
Smith is a seasoned and wily campaigner who
will know all this.
He has had some engrossing skirmishes with
the left-arm thunderbolt before, winning some rounds and losing others, in the
uncompromising manner of a slug-out between two distinguished and well-matched
Both men are 30 – Johnson reached that
landmark just a few days ago – which is often when cricketers are considered to
be roughly at the peak of their powers, fuelled by lots of wisdom but also not
quite yet candidates for long-in-the-tooth branding.
They have also had their respective ups and
down, as happens in this complex game: Johnson has experienced periods where he
has stopped swinging the ball even if not necessarily shelving his
near-blinding pace, making him more prone to assault and battery on good
batting tracks, whilst Smith’s recent scratchy form and technical difficulties
especially against left-arm quickies are well documented impediments.
In terms of current mojo, the Australian boasts
an edge going into the Newlands fixture: he is bending the cherry again and
looking hungry and penetrative, but Smith’s “recent matches” performance list
on his personal portfolio on Cricinfo rather bears out his general unease at
That list shows scores of 19, 57 and 4 in
the surrendered ODI series to the Aussies, 24 and 0 in the shared Twenty20
international series, and 6, 12, 24 and 0, for what it’s worth, in T20 activity
for Pune Warriors in April and May after a similarly stuttering World Cup for
Johnson also has the psychological
advantage of knowing that in the last Test summer between the two great
southern hemisphere powers, he broke both of Smith’s hands almost three years
Smith’s public popularity -- for various
reasons and rightly or wrongly -- has seemingly been at a lowest-ever point in
recent months, although they always say the best captains don’t go out of their
way to court this anyway.
But his courage and bulldog tenacity does
not deserve any scrutiny at all: his only half-jocular “pappadum fingers”
mantle, given several injury setbacks of this nature, must irk him more than
anything else: he simply hates being missing from a dogfight and has shown
before that he never holds back physically just because he has been under the
surgeon’s knife or been on a monotonous cocktail of pain-killers.
And for all those who question his ongoing
presence in Proteas one-day sides, now no longer as captain, they are naively unfair
when they suggest he is a similarly spent force, at least in their jaundiced eyes,
as a Test campaigner.
Smith still holds a commanding Test average
of a fraction under 50, and if his form has veered a little toward
inconsistency in this arena as well, it also isn’t all bad: he has two
centuries, a 90 and another two half-centuries in his last 13 knocks.
His specific Newlands track record is even
better – average 54.85 – and in his second last Test at the ground he scored a
second-innings 183 against England.
That is not the stuff of “liability”; come
Even so, Smith’s supporters will probably
quietly admit to some nervousness ahead of the Aussie battle, given the less
than ideal – personally, I am a bit more inclined to call it bloody awful –
preparation period by South Africa for the important series.
The captain’s experience and instincts for
a fierce scrap are going to be important under the circumstances.
Early blows either way could well be influential
at Newlands in establishing both a match and series foothold.
So get down to Newlands for Smith v Johnson
if you like the smell of napalm in the morning ...