Cape Town - We should get a good idea after the first couple of hours of play in the decisive final Test at the Wanderers whether the substantially reworked Australian side are suitably focussed on their bounce-back task required against South Africa.
A staggering lot has “gone down”, as they say, between last Saturday’s sudden ructions at Newlands and the gradual build-up to the closing fixture on Friday.
Included in that indelicate, scandal-based tumble from grace, of course, are Messrs Steve Smith, David Warner and Cameron Bancroft: two of them the central tour leadership figures and the other a batsman who was, ironically, finding some mojo at the crease at that very venue - he’d scored a tenacious 77 in the Australian first innings, preceding his exposure for sandpaper-based ball-tampering.
But now Australia, 2-1 down and trying not to become the first Aussie outfit since 1969/70 to lose a Test series on our soil, have three gaping holes in their batting line-up (Smith and Warner have undoubtedly been their most vital elements for some time, on paper) plus vexing questions about the broad state of mind of their XI that takes to the Bullring.
Plucking those two heavyweights out of the frontline batting is very much like South Africa, for instance, suddenly being deprived of both AB de Villiers and Hashim Amla in one late swoop for a major-series decider; potentially the sort of event that could swing forecasters very much the way of the opposition for its sheer magnitude.
Whilst both Smith and Warner were yet to catch fire to a meaningful extent against the Proteas, there has also been little in the way of genuinely heavy-scoring on a regular basis from any of the remaining, incumbent Aussie batsmen to suggest they will be anything but notably vulnerable in that department in Johannesburg.
Mitch Marsh, for instance, came to light with an innings of 96 in the Durban Test, but has little else to brag about at the crease, and their increasingly tenuous No 3 Usman Khawaja, similarly, has got 75 of his mere 105 series runs in one knock at St George’s Park.
Exactly which of the alternative Australian batsmen in their hastily reshuffled squad would step into the three vacancies was unclear at the time of writing – not surprising when Joe Burns, Glenn Maxwell and Matt Renshaw have scrambled at such short notice to get to South Africa.
As the main remaining batsman from the initially-named squad not yet deployed in the series, you would think Peter Handscomb will fill one position, having the advantage of several weeks in our conditions – albeit that his game-time amounts to unflattering knocks of nought and five against SA ‘A’ in Benoni.
Another snag is that none of the trio of reinforcements have prior experience of playing top-tier cricket in South Africa.
Maxwell, also an electric fielder and useful secondary off-spinner, is the most experienced cricketer of the incoming group, at age 29 and with 81 one-day internationals below his belt, but only seven Tests.
All of those Test matches have been on the Subcontinent, and none of his much more numerous ODIs in this country, so our pitches are primarily virgin territory for him.
He also arrives not exactly bloated with domestic first-class runs in Australia of late: in receding order, his latest scores for Victoria have been 17, 0, 8, 33, 47 and 12.
Renshaw (he turned 22 on Wednesday) and Burns, meanwhile, have played one Test match each against the Proteas - although again not here.
The former notched 10 and 34 not out in the dead-rubber third Test of November 2016 in Adelaide, and Burns lasted only 12 balls across two innings in the series-deciding second (in the Proteas’ favour) with scores of one and nought.
But are the Aussies simply going to go belly-up in the Bullring, under the acting captaincy of wicketkeeper Tim Paine?
That shouldn’t be considered a given by South African supporters.
Yes, it is the last Test of a troubled tour, but this is also now, supposedly a “cleaned up” Baggy Greens team who may take a determined, nothing-to-lose approach under the difficult circumstances and truly fight for the badge despite their unsatisfactory levels of preparedness.
Indeed, might the absence of the complex figure of Warner, especially, actually lead to a more harmonious and united dressing room? It is far from out of the question.
The Aussies, into the bargain, have not had their stable regular, specialist bowling attack affected by the tampering affair so all of Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood, Pat Cummins and Nathan Lyon may yet be highly motivated to prove that they can still excel without any hint of suspicion that the cherry in their hands has been dubiously manipulated in their favour ...
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