South Africa-Australia: First Test Preview

Piet BairdContributor IFebruary 24, 2009

At 08:30 (GMT) on Thursday, South Africa and Australia resume hostilities at the Wanderers in Johannesburg following South Africa's gripping series win in Australia.

Australia arrived in South Africa with what appears to be a relatively inexperienced squad, but they showed no signs of being overawed, as they produced a good performance in a drawn warm-up match against the South Africa Board Presidents X1.

Australia have lost two of their last three Test Series. Their heads were sent spinning by a comprehensive 2-0 defeat in India then, following a home series win over New Zealand, they were dealt a juddering body blow by losing a closely fought home series against the South Africans.

You could almost have forgiven them, wearing the aura of a beaten and bruised boxer as he slumps over the ring's ropes, anticipating "that" knockout blow. But that isn't the Aussie way.

They arrive in South Africa still, statistically at least, the leading team in World Test Cricket, and the irrepressible Ricky Ponting has been playing his psychological aces in the build-up to the first test. He claims the South Africans will struggle with the tag of favorites after chasing the title of the world's No. 1 Test team for so long.

Against the Australian inexperience, South Africa has a team that has come through transition and almost all the players have a proven and deserved place in the Test team.

They have a blend of honest cricketers such as Hashim Amla and Paul Harris, exciting match winners such as Greame Smith and Dale Steyn, and a wealth of experience in the guise of Mark Boucher, Jacques Kallis, and Makayah Ntini.

Steyn and Morkel provide a testing new ball partnership with a combination of pace and height. Steyn can deliver devastating in swinging yorkers at pace and Morkels' height means he can extract bounce from pitches that other bowlers cannot.

The popular money would appear to be going on South Africa to win, but they will do well to remain focused and wary of the Australians who still have winning etched into their cricketing culture. Australia may have been beaten, but they are not down and out. They are certainly capable of packing a punch if South Africa does not remain focused. 

History would not point to a successful series for the South Africans, who have lost five out of six of their home Test Matches against Australia since 2002. Indeed the winning margins range from two Wickets to a thumping, Adam Gilchrist inspired, Innings and 316 runs. 

Both Test Matches at The Wanderers were won by Australia, coincidentally by an Innings and 316 runs in 2002 and by two Wickets in 2006.

The first Test will be pivotal, allowing whoever wins to gain the upper hand not only in terms of result, but also mentally. Do not expect a draw as only one of the last 15 Test Matches between the teams has been a draw. Australia's 11 wins during that time demonstrates the extent of their dominance over South Africa.

In terms of team news, South Africa can be expected to stick with the team that completed the Series in Australia. Ashwell Prince is not in the 12-man squad so JP Duminy will continue, and do not expect Lonwabo Tsotsobe to be considered ahead of any of the current pace bowlers in the team just yet.

Greame Smith will return from his broken hand injury and you can expect Ricky Ponting to re-introduce him to the perpetrator of that injury, Mitchell Johnson, as soon as South Africa gets in to bat.

Australia's lineup is harder to determine. Philip Hughes will take the vacancy left by Matty Hayden, with Katich, Ponting, Hussey, and Michael Clarke (if fit) likely to complete the top order. Brad Haddin will also start, while Andrew McDonald and Marcus North will compete for the all rounders spot.

Mitchell Johnson and Peter Siddle are likely to be included in Australia's pace attack leaving two places unaccounted for. The most testing decision for Australia will be whether to include a spinner or not, with South African pitches not renowned for taking much spin.