In international cricket, the home-ground advantage is everything, right? Not when it comes to South Africa and Australia. When these two teams meet, they turn conventional wisdom on its head. Or, to be more accurate, the conventional wisdom now has an accepted exception: in battles between Australia and South Africa, the visitors should start as favourites. The past three series in Australia have all been won by South Africa; Australia haven’t lost a series in South Africa since 1970. When the home team last won a series between these two sides, it was Ricky Ponting’s men in 2005-06, at the beginning of a world-record stretch of 16 consecutive Test wins. Twelve years later, can Faf du Plessis and his men end the trend?
On paper, yes. South Africa enter this series ranked No. 2 in the world, with winning form behind them, and no shortage of class and experience. There’s Hashim Amla and AB de Villiers, both over the 8000-run mark in Tests; the soon-to-retire Morne Morkel with nearly 300 Test wickets; Dean Elgar, the leading opener in Test cricket in 2017; Kagiso Rabada, the top fast bowler in Tests last year. And that’s without even mentioning du Plessis, Vernon Philander and Quinton de Kock, all of whom have previously troubled the Australians. By the end of the campaign, Australia might also have to negotiate the small matter of Dale Steyn, currently recovering from a heel injury.
But Australia have rather a lot going for them, too. Steven Smith is clearly the best batsman in Test cricket right now, and will take plenty of stopping. David Warner has three centuries from his three previous Tests in South Africa. Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins are a pace attack of match-winning potential, and Cummins will relish a return to the country of his unforgettable Man-of-the-Match performance on Test debut as an 18-year-old. And then of course, there is Nathan Lyon, Test cricket’s leading wicket-taker in 2017, and a man who won’t mind if South Africa get the slower pitches they want in this series.
Notably, it will also be the first series between these two sides played over more than three Tests since South Africa’s readmission. Let’s hope it lives up to the promise.
South Africa LWWWW (last five matches, most recent first)
But the former South Africa captain is certain Vernon Philander, Kagiso Rabada and Morne Morkel will be immensely threatening too
In the spotlight
The No. 2-ranked bowler in Test cricket, Kagiso Rabada was second only to Lyon for wickets taken in Tests in 2017. His pace and bounce make him a difficult enough prospect, but if the ball is moving at all, that challenge goes to another level. Notably, Rabada had success in his only series against Australia, taking 15 wickets at 22.40 on the tour of Australia in 2016-17. And perhaps even more notably, he twice had Steven Smith caught behind in the thirties. If he can replicate that a few times in this series, it would go a long way to blunting Australia’s victory chances.
Australia will use the same XI from the Sydney Test against England, but not all of their players can claim to have a vice-like hold on their spot. Cameron Bancroft, for example, is the incumbent opening partner for Warner and will play in Durban, but needs a big score soon. After making 82 on debut against England at the Gabba, Bancroft could not build on his starts through the rest of the Ashes, scoring 10, 4, 25, 26, 27 and 0 in the next four Tests. And the man he replaced, Matt Renshaw, has just piled up hundreds in back-to-back Sheffield Shield games for Queensland. And Usman Khawaja and Shaun Marsh are more than capable opening stand-ins should Bancroft continue to struggle. Bancroft is a talented batsman of immense patience, but all the same, watch this space.
South Africa are yet to decide on the balance of their side, with the possibility of Theunis de Bruyn, or Lungi Ngidi as an extra bowler. But Temba Bavuma, still struggling with a hand injury, is expected to sit out.
South Africa (possible): 1 Dean Elgar, 2 Aiden Markram, 3 Hashim Amla, 4 AB de Villiers, 5 Faf du Plessis (capt), 6 Quinton de Kock (wk), 7 Vernon Philander, 8 Keshav Maharaj, 9 Kagiso Rabada, 10 Morne Morkel, 11 Lungi Ngidi.
Steven Smith has confirmed Australia will use the same XI that won the final Ashes Test in Sydney, which means that of the touring squad, Peter Handscomb, Jon Holland, Jhye Richardson and Chadd Sayers will sit out.
Australia: 1 Cameron Bancroft, 2 David Warner, 3 Usman Khawaja, 4 Steven Smith (capt), 5 Shaun Marsh, 6 Mitchell Marsh, 7 Tim Paine (wk), 8 Mitchell Starc, 9 Pat Cummins, 10 Josh Hazlewood, 11 Nathan Lyon.
Pitch and conditions
The Kingsmead pitch can tend to be on the slower side, which could bring Lyon and Keshav Maharaj into the game. The weather for the first few days at least should be fine.
Stats and trivia
Australia have not played a Test in Durban since 2009, when Phillip Hughes burst onto the Test scene with a hundred in each innings of his second Test match
The last two times Australia and South Africa played series of more than three Tests, South Africa won them both – but they were in 1966-67 and 1970 respectively
Morne Morkel is six wickets from reaching the milestone of 300 in Tests and he would be the fifth South African to the mark, behind Shaun Pollock, Dale Steyn, Makhaya Ntini and Allan Donald
“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.”
“It’s the most competitive series that you play. We are both very passionate and competitive and we try and leave all out there on the field.”
Faf du Plessis on the fierce nature of the competition between the two sides