Proteas’ mission: Halt Haddin
Cape Town - Although it may have happened occasionally in the era of Adam Gilchrist, Australia will begin their three-Test series in South Africa in a fairly unusual situation: their No 7 and wicketkeeper as form batsman in the ranks.
Mitchell Johnson may have dominated the headlines in the recent home Ashes series for his blinding speed and rich pickings during the 5-0 rout of England by the Baggy Greens, but veteran Brad Haddin’s efforts at the crease - quite often in arresting a wobble higher up the order - were almost as influential.
Any thoughts that the Aussies are in line now to return to the pinnacle of the global pile (knocking over top dogs South Africa would be a massive step in that direction), are understandably tempered by many critics by the ongoing belief that the specialist batting arsenal remains an area of relative instability and sometimes too fitful performance.
Haddin heading the Australian averages in the Ashes may well be seen as evidence of that: although he was pipped for most runs by swashbuckling opener David Warner (523 at 58.11), his own 493 came at a superior 61.62; the 36-year-old gloveman underlined his glowing consistency in the series by going past the 50-mark more times (six, including one century) than any compatriot.
Thanks to his near-unfailing success in the Ashes, Haddin - no Gilchrist, but not that far off in enterprising philosophy - has swelled his tally of Test runs to 3,007 at 36.67 after 54 appearances for his country.
But one thing in the Proteas’ favour, perhaps, is that his average dips a bit in eight Tests against them, to 33.50 with a personal best of 94.
In South Africa itself, where conditions for seamers are often pretty favourable and Messrs Steyn, Philander and Morkel are currently master exploiters, he has managed only 241 runs from five Tests at 26.77.
This is very much in line with his broader tendency to be much more productive on home soil, where he averages 46.21 as opposed to his figure abroad of 28.43.
Perhaps not to be forgotten, however, is the typically tenacious role Haddin played in the Aussies’ tense, levelling victory in the two-Test series on our shores last time out, in November 2011, after they had been humiliated at Newlands in the infamous “47 all out” Test for them.
Set a stiff 310 for victory to square up the series at the Wanderers, the dice was loaded in South Africa’s favour when Haddin took to the crease at 165 for five in the chase.
But his gritty, 106-ball knock of 55 was manna from heaven as the tourists hunted down the requirement in a nail-biting finish and with two wickets to spare.
The Aussies have added Phil Hughes to their squad batting mix, following the withdrawal through injury of Shaun Marsh, who was a strong candidate for the problematic No 6 spot just above Haddin’s likeliest station.
The left-handed Hughes, now 25, has been as enigmatic as several other Baggy Greens batsmen in recent seasons, after his fabulous 2008/09 tour of South Africa where he became the youngest player to register centuries in each innings of a Test at Kingsmead.
But that made him a bit of a “one-series wonder”: he has since been axed several times and it is thought rookie Alex Doolan may have the inside lane to bat at six in the first Test from February 12 anyway.
The Aussies play their lone four-day warm-up match for the first Test at Centurion from Wednesday at Potchefstroom, against a SA Invitation XI.Haddin’s Ashes:
1st Test, Brisbane (Aus won by 381 runs): 94 and 53
2nd Test, Adelaide (Aus won by 218 runs): 118 and DNB
3rd Test, Perth (Aus won by 150 runs): 55 and 5
4th Test, Melbourne (Aus won by 8 wickets): 65 and DNB
5th Test, Sydney (Aus won by 281 runs): 75 and 28*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing