Australia will take the same team that lifted the Ashes urn in Sydney seven weeks ago into the first Test against South Africa, for a series the captain Steven Smith believes can be the making of numerous younger members of his side.
It was in the corresponding Test four years ago in Centurion that Smith and Shaun Marsh sculpted centuries that set an ultimately victorious tone for the team then led by Michael Clarke – both still regard those innings as the finest of their careers. Similarly, a host of Australian pace bowlers have saved their very best for South Africa, with Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins eager to add to a tradition of success: Australia have not lost a series in this part of the world since the end of apartheid.
While Smith admitted the prospect of a four-Test series, elongated from three at the behest of the former Cricket Australia chairman Wally Edwards after a thrilling Cape Town denouement in 2014, would be especially taxing at the end of a long summer, he was adamant that his team had refreshed sufficiently to take on Faf du Plessis’ side. At the same time he looked for breakout overseas performances from the likes of Cameron Bancroft, Usman Khawaja and Mitchell Marsh alongside the senior men.
“There’s no doubt it’s a tough tour. Conditions wise it’s as similar as you get to back home but you’re still away from home and they’re a good team,” Smith said in Durban. “So it’s a chance where guys can find some confidence that they can play well away from home and hopefully some guys have innings like Shaun at Centurion and make a name for themselves and give them that confidence they can do it against quality attacks like South Africa.
“No doubt throughout the series guys are going to have some sort of fatigue set in. It has been a long summer and every Test back home went five days and things like that, but in the end you’re playing for your country and you find ways to get yourself up. You don’t need too much motivation when you’re playing for your country.
“It’s just going to be about helping each other out and making sure that if guys are feeling fatigued someone else will take the load for a bit and just trying to share that as much as possible and make sure we can keep each other as fresh as we can be and just in the challenge really.”
Most critical for Australia’s chances in the looming bout will be the physical and mental readiness of the “big three” fast bowlers, who alongside Smith and Nathan Lyon were the difference for Australia in the Ashes. Smith, who himself needed time away from the game after showing signs of fatigue in the ODI series defeat to England that preceded the trip to South Africa, said he had sensed a greatly refreshed mood amongst his spearheads.
“They all had a little bit of time off at the end of the one-dayers, which I don’t think you actually need that long,” Smith said. “I think a week or two actually just does a world of good to anyone and I know that when we landed here, Starcy for instance was so happy the way the ball was coming out, he was swinging it and you could just see on their faces that they were a bit more refreshed and just ready to go. Everyone is excited about this series, it’s going to be a cracker.”
Smith, of course, is as pivotal to his team’s chances as anyone, and as the world’s leading Test batsman by a distance, he has a record and reputation to maintain against Vernon Philander, Kagiso Rabada and the soon-to-retire Morne Morkel. Having effectively steeled himself to put together outstanding series against India and England over the past 12 months, Smith was hopeful of having everything “just click” for him at the batting crease this time around.
“It’s too early to tell yet. I don’t know. It sort of just happens out in the middle sometimes,” he said. “I really enjoyed the couple of weeks I had off after the one-day series. I needed that, I was very drained. It got to the point where I actually didn’t want to pick my cricket bat up for a bit which is very rare for me. I just love batting.
“It got to a point where I wanted to do it again, so I think that was the moment where I was sort of refreshed and ready to go. I feel like I’ve been batting well since we’ve been here. Hopefully, I can stand up again and lead the boys and get myself in that zone again to have the success against a good bowling attack.”
The Kingsmead pitch looks to have even grass coverage but Smith expected it to be on the slower side, in keeping with South Africa’s stated intentions to deny the Australian pacemen the sort of spicy surfaces served up for the recent India series. To that end, Smith said patience and the ability to grind out difficult periods of play with bat and ball would be vital.
“I thought that they’d go with quite slow wickets or maybe green wickets,” Smith said. “One of the two. I didn’t think they’d have a great deal of pace. But looking at the wicket now a couple of days out, it looks like it could be quite slow, maybe not a great deal of carry. But I’m terrible at judging wickets, so it’s just about summing it up when we’re out there and adapting to whatever we’re dealt and identifying it quickly and making sure we’re doing everything we need to do on our feet quickly.
“First Test match is so important so you don’t want to be behind the eight ball early in this series. I think the average first innings score’s around 270-280, so it could be quite a hard grind and playing the long game as much as you can and toughing out difficult periods and just being on top of every run, every run could be crucial. Just being all over that and making sure we start well with the first Test.”
Australia’s enviable record in South Africa has gone some way to erasing memories of the previous encounter between the sides in late 2016, when Rabada, Philander and company skated to a victory that caused great turmoil in Australian cricket but has since been cited by many as the making of Smith’s captaincy. Certainly the unchanged XI, in contrast to the five changes made between Hobart and Adelaide 18 months ago, is a marker of stability and improvement.
“That wasn’t a great time, it was a bit of a low point for Australian cricket, but I think since then we’ve made some really good strides and the cricket we’ve been playing, particularly back home in the Ashes was magnificent,” Smith said. “Now it’s about doing all those things we did well, the basic things, but doing them at another level. If we do that then I’m confident we can have a lot of success.
“I think our squad together now is a really good squad. Even the guys that aren’t playing have been training exceptionally well. Petey [Handscomb] got a hundred before we came away in Shield cricket and averages 47 in Test cricket so I think it is showing us that we’ve got a good side. Having said that, we’re going to have to be up for the challenge here.”
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig
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