Cape Town – They have not hyped it up publicly, but it
hardly takes a brain surgeon to work out that South Africa will seek to make
life particularly uncomfortable for an unusually unproven Australian top three
in the batting line-up when the first Test starts in Brisbane on Friday.
At least in statistical terms, is this possibly the most
vulnerable the Baggy Greens will be in these critical, top-order positions in
the entire history of clashes between the countries?
You have to suspect so, even if no disrespect is intended to
Ed Cowan, David Warner and Rob Quiney, the trio of left-handers who will almost
certainly be the men entrusted with the chore.
Cricket being a famously funny old game, who knows quite how
the clash between these relative rookies and the Proteas’ proven, highly-rated
pace attack will turn out ... but the top-ranked tourists are sure to turn up
the heat on them immediately in the hope that they wilt beneath it and trigger
some sort of domino effect on the remainder of the order.
The Aussies are hugely better served in experience terms in
berths four, five and six, which is some comfort for them, where all of Ricky
Ponting, captain Michael Clarke and Mike Hussey have prospered heartily against
virtually all comers, including the South Africans at varying times.
But the veterans Ponting (he turns 38 before the year is out)
and 37-year-old Hussey have grappled with intermittent form issues in recent
years, despite both still averaging above 50 in the Test arena, and it is
probably not unreasonable to venture that both would be much likelier to excel
against the current South African arsenal if a decent platform has been laid
upfront for them.
On that score, there are bound to be good numbers even of
dyed-in-the-wool Aussie enthusiasts quietly anxious – to put it diplomatically?
-- about the series prospects of Messrs Cowan, Warner and the late,
debut-making call-up Quiney.
Their combined Test figures, especially considering that
Quiney isn’t even off the mark, don’t come remotely close to worthwhile
measurement against some of the juggernaut personalities the Aussies have
fielded at the front end of their order in either the recent past or more
Cowan is a workmanlike character (strike rate a pretty
un-Australian 41) about whom the jury remains out after seven Test matches: 358
runs at an average of 29.83 although, in fairness, there have been umpteen
cases down the years of openers who blossom only once they are well into double
figures in caps terms. It is not the easiest trade in the world to grasp.
Perhaps the best hope of Aussie productivity among their top
three comes from his anticipated opening partner Warner, the limited-overs
blaster of note who has occasionally transferred that brutality into the Test
environment – a withering 180 against India at Perth in January this year
quickly comes to mind.
He is averaging a promising enough 42 after nine Tests,
although perhaps the latest three against the South Africans will be the most
searching examination yet of whether his technique really stands up to the
different demands of the five-day game.
Should Warner come off, and genuinely wallop the shine off
the new ball and also a bit beyond it, he will strike key psychological blows
for the Baggy Greens more broadly, giving them even greater reason to hope that
they have unearthed a worthy answer to the muscular Matthew Hayden and company of
the earlier 2000s era.
No shortage of Test purists, meanwhile, will be examining
Quiney’s first-class record with some measure of cynicism: the 30-year-old has clearly
been “around” for some time but an average at that level of only 37.70 is not
the sort of stat to get canny, ambitious bowlers trembling too profoundly in
It does appear that he has been roped in primarily on the
grounds of his sprightly 85 for Australia ‘A’ against the Proteas in their
three-day warm-up fixture on what was reportedly a SCG featherbed.
Test series, of course, certainly aren’t won on weight of
already-recorded runs going into them, but it is a sobering point,
nevertheless, that South Africa’s increasingly settled and formidable top three
of Graeme Smith, Alviro Petersen and Hashim Amla sport 14 447 Test runs between
them, while their expected Aussie counterparts have compiled 948.
You would think that’s got to make a difference of some
sort. I would venture that it might be the series-swayer ...
*Follow our chief
writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing