Australia in SA

Biff v Mitch a critical Test duel?

2011-11-08 10:38
Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

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 heavyweight boxers.

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 the crease.

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 “Biff”.

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 ago.

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 on, people.

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 ...

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