Johannesburg - It’s not often that South Africans get to say this about a team of theirs playing in Australia, but it seems as if the only thing the Proteas have to fear in their Test series against the Aussies is lack of fear itself.
Thanks to a surreal set of favourable circumstances, Russell Domingo’s men somehow find themselves as the slight favourites for the three Test series beginning in Perth on Thursday, with two more in Hobart and what will be their first day-night Test in Adelaide.
The Proteas went to Australia after a historic 5-0 one-day international whitewash over an admittedly weakened Australia; arrived in a country reeling from the fuss kicked up by former captain Michael Clarke and former fast bowler Mitchell Johnson’s autobiographies; had their coach’s contract extended and breezed through their two warm-up games.
Better yet, the series begins in Perth, where they have played three times, winning twice by chasing down 413 and humiliating the Aussies by 309 runs, and drawing the other game. And believe it or not, the Proteas seek a third successive series win in Australia.
Former Proteas batsman and ex-SuperSport commentator Hylton Ackerman, who moved to Perth in September to take up a director of coaching job at Guildford Grammar – a school attended by old Aussie cricketers Tom Moody and Brendan Julian, and the late actor Heath Ledger – believes the Proteas are favourites.
“This Australian team is ripe for the taking and the Proteas can certainly win their third series in a row Down Under,” Ackerman said.
“I get the feeling that there is a lot of uncertainty within their ranks. Steve Smith leaving Sri Lanka and David Warner having success leading the team has put some pressure on Smith as a leader.
“Clarke and Johnson’s books give South Africa some ammunition to work with against Australia, which is unusual because it’s normally the other way around.”
Ackerman also highlighted more potential bickering in the Aussie team after batsman Usman Khawaja recently accused Australian cricket of making scapegoats out of him and Joe Burns by dropping them in the 3-0 Test defeat in Sri Lanka.
“[Coach] Darren Lehmann has said it was not the case, which is food for thought. You also have to think about how Khawaja was one of the players involved in the homework scandal under Mickey Arthur – he seems to be someone who speaks out.”
But he did have something approaching a word of caution for the chipper Proteas: “The performance in South Africa was not expected, but all the talk has been around, ‘We’re home now, and we’re very good at home”.
Looking at the possible composition of the Australian team, Ackerman said he would go with Peter Siddle as the third seamer after Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood, with Nathan Lyon and all-rounder Mitchell Marsh completing the bowling attack.
“Both Siddle and Jackson Bird have had success in the first round of Sheffield Shield games,” he said.
“Siddle would be my choice as he is economical and will bowl all day. Think of the Adelaide Test three years ago, when he bowled himself to a standstill.
“But I think they’ll go with Bird because he got seven wickets in the Test against New Zealand in February and is the man in possession, after all.”
Ackerman said his preferred batting line-up would be Warner, Shaun Marsh, Khawaja, Smith, Adam Voges, Marsh and wicketkeeper Peter Nevill. The Aussies were a little underwhelmed at the way the younger Marsh, an all-rounder who averages 24 with the bat and 39 with the ball, had been a little slow with his development.
Weighing in on the composition of the Proteas team, Ackerman agreed with most opinions except the bowling attack. Not only would he like to see a spinner joining Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander and Kagiso Rabada at Morne Morkel’s expense, he wanted it to be Keshav Maharaj instead of left-arm wrist-spinner Tabraiz Shamsi.
“My selection of [orthodox left-arm spinner] Maharaj might raise a few eyebrows, but you have to remember the part [fellow left-armer] Robin Peterson played the last time the Proteas played in Perth.”
A little too good to be true? The Proteas should be wary of that.