Australia v South Africa cricket: Burning questions – what’s at stake for Australia

Ton up: Australia’s Steve Smith celebrates scoring a century during the third day of their third Test. Photo: Eranga JayawardenaWhat’s on the line for Australia?

A winless one-day series against South Africa was humbling but it always shaped as a rugged trip because of an inexperienced pace attack. Putting that aside, Test defeats in England last year (under Michael Clarke) and in Sri Lanka this year (under Steve Smith) have exposed weaknesses against the seaming Dukes ball and spin. Wins against New Zealand at home and on the road, and a home crunching of the West Indies, were good but there is a perception this rebuilding side is a flat-track bully. The next six months will provide a thorough examination of where the dethroned No.1-ranked side sits, for South Africa and Pakistan have the arsenal to wreak havoc here this summer, before a demanding four-Test series in India.

What does a horses-for-courses selection really mean?

Team performance boss Pat Howard has suggested this as a selection plan come the sub-continent, where spin specialists may be required. We prefer Mark Taylor’s declaration, the former Australian skipper telling Fairfax Media he wanted a “horses-for-all-courses” side – but the batsmen must deliver. While India beckons, there are pressing issues which need to be addressed in the next fortnight, with only one Sheffield Shield clash for our top players to find form. Do Joe Burns and Usman Khawaja – who both enjoy facing pace – automatically return, having been dumped for the final Test in Sri Lanka? Surely, Shaun Marsh – with centuries in his past two Tests spread eight months apart – retains his spot in what shapes as his final chance at the elite level. And what about Adam Voges? Having turned 37, will he remain part of the plans for the next year, including a home Ashes campaign in 2017-18?

Is Peter Nevill still the No.1 keeper?

Nevill’s glovework remains strong but his batting has become a worry. In 15 Tests, he has 376 runs at 20.88 (two half-centuries) – that’s not good enough in this modern age when glovemen also need to perform with the bat. He reached double figures only twice in six innings in Sri Lanka. Australia’s 33rd Test wicketkeeper has the batting technique to succeed, and is seen in the top order for NSW, but, unless the runs flow early in the summer, expect the pressure to intensify. Keep an eye on young Western Australian gloveman Sam Whiteman if there was to be change.

How angry should spearhead Mitchell Starc be over his training mishap?

Very, although he has resumed running and bowling this week. Starc crashed to the ground in pain after a freak training accident when he ran into the base of a set of stumps during a fielding drill last month, sparking a deep gash in his left shin which required an operation and 30 stitches. Already due to be rested from the just-completed tour of South Africa, Starc found himself in a knee brace, and fighting to be fit for NSW’s only Shield clash before the first Test. He later said he was lucky the stump had not ruptured his patella tendon. Starc is arguably the key to Australia’s fortunes this summer. If he cannot make early inroads, there could be some long days in the field.

What about the injuries to our other fast bowlers?

It’s a growing concern. Coach Darren Lehmann said in South Africa the tourists were without seven of their front-line bowlers. Starc, rested initially then injured, and Josh Hazlewood, also rested, would have been first-choice selections had it not been for the long campaign which awaits. James Pattinson (back stress fracture) hopes to return in time for the Big Bash League, while Peter Siddle (ankle surgery, back stress fractures) has just resumed. Paceman Nathan Coulter-Nile will miss the entire season. It’s hoped Pat Cummins can finally enjoy a consistent run, for at 23 he still has much to offer. The bowling loads of the pacemen are scrupulously monitored these days, with limits on the number of deliveries allowed between matches, in a bid to avoid injury. However, Glenn McGrath’s philosophy in his heyday was to bowl as often as possible, ensuring his body remained supple to the unorthodox physical demands of bowling. If the recent injuries continue, a major review will be needed. Jackson Bird shapes as the third fast bowler come Perth.

What can we expect from South Africa?

The Proteas may have slipped to fifth in the world rankings but they prevailed in their past two series here – in 2008-09 and 2012-13, becoming the first team to capture successive series in Australia since the great West Indian sides of yesteryear. Their batting still appears strong even without A.B de Villiers. Hashim Amla (563 runs at 70.37 in five Tests this year), Temba Bavuma (332 runs at 66.4 in five Tests this year), stand-in skipper Faf du Plessis (257 at 51.4 in four Tests) and Quinton de Kock (308 at 77 in four Tests) have been in the runs this year. But their attack is ageing, although 33-year-old spearhead Dale Steyn – ranked the world’s No.2 bowler – is still a major threat. Steyn has played only two Tests this year. “He’s still our number one bowler in Test cricket and for us to have a successful tour of Australia Dale Steyn will be the guy to make or break that for us,” du Plessis said. Vernon Philander, 31, has been injury plagued, Morne Morkel, 32, still needs to pass a fitness test because of back problems, while Kyle Abbott is 29. They will need 21-year-old paceman Kagiso Rabada (eight Tests, 29 wickets at 24.44) to continue his development, particularly with their tightened quota system to be enforced. They have also named uncapped left-arm spinners Tabraiz Shamsi and Keshav Maharaja, who selectors believe will be “particularly useful in Australian conditions and against the Test batsmen we are likely to face”. Australia may have been humbled by Sri Lanka’s spinners on their recent Test tour, but conditions on the sub-continent will differ, potentially greatly, to those expected in Perth, Hobart and under lights in Adelaide. Australia’s batsmen generally enjoy the added bounce spinners extract here, compared to Asian conditions where the ball slides on more – which caused the Australians grief in Sri Lanka.

What does AB de Villiers’ absence mean?

Plenty. Yes, the Proteas still have a strong top order but their skipper remains their batting kingpin (ranked No.6 in the world) and his ability to play either a steady or audacious knock can turn a Test. But he will miss at least the opening two Tests, having had elbow surgery, but has said he could yet fast-track his recovery in time for the day-night Test in Adelaide. De Villiers’ injury comes amid concerns he is playing too much cricket (namely lucrative Twenty20 competitions). It’s no surprise that the Proteas recent woes against India and England came while he failed to post a ton in either series. Said former South African captain Kepler Wessels: “De Villiers can’t be replaced. He is one of a rare breed that doesn’t come around very often.”

What about Pakistan?

If Pakistan arrive here in the right frame of mind, and that traditionally has been a big if, they have the weapons to sink the home side. Under the stewardship of chairman of selectors Inzamam-ul-Haq, coach Mickey Arthur (who took charge in May) and veteran skipper Misbah-ul-Haq, Pakistan rose to No.1 in the ICC’s rankings after a 2-2 series in England. Only recently, were they overtaken by India. In the past two years, they have defeated England in three Tests, Australia twice and New Zealand once. Their batting line-up has featured consistent contributions from Younis Khan (an under-rated superstar), Misbah-ul-Haq, Mohammad Hafeez, Asad Shafiq and Azhar Ali. In leg-spinner Yasir Shah, who had served a three-month doping ban, they have one of the most prolific wicket-takers in the past two years – and we know how Australia has struggled against quality spin. Importantly, they have the pace attack to do damage. Mohammad Amir, having returned from a five-year spot fixing ban, Rahat Ali and Wahab Riaz (1-67 and 1-46) have the pace and variety to trouble a top-order which likes to push at the ball. “In England you encounter swing and seam whereas in Australia you need to counter pace and bounce and since their batsmen are used to that pace and bounce we find them scoring at high rates. Having said that, our team has the potential to win matches in Australia, too, just like we have done in England,” Misbah wrote in a column for the Cricket Australia website. We know how volatile Pakistani politics can be, so the move to allow Inzamam to be able to name the team without running it by the Pakistan Cricket Board could yet lead to trouble.

What’s going to be on the mind of Pakistan coach Mickey Arthur?

He may be one of the game’s great gentlemen but Arthur, surely, will have revenge on his mind, having been sacked by Cricket Australia in 2013. He had 11 wins, seven losses and three draws with his adopted nation. Having reassessed his approach to coaching, the former South African mentor – he had led the Proteas to the No.1 ranking – accepted the top job with Pakistan this year and became just the second man after Dav Whatmore to coach three separate full member nations to Test victories. What has been clear is how organised the team has looked. Arthur’s philosophy is clear. “I want the players to be at peak physical shape. If you are physically fit, you have a far better chance of success. Any team we play is going to be fit and field really well, so that would be my expectations from my team without a doubt,” he said.

Off the pitch, what can we expect at the bargaining table between players and Cricket Australia?

There’s likely to be plenty of action over the board-room table as CA and the Australian Cricketers Association haggle over pay and conditions in a new memorandum of understanding. Discussions four years ago were heated. Our female players also want to be included in a MOU – which appears set to happen. Other issues, such as the sanctity of the Sheffield Shield and an increasingly congested schedule, will also be debated. Don’t expect there to be any serious “strike” calls by the players, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be mooted in the media.

Any final thoughts?

Coach Darren Lehmann, despite having a year to run on his contract, was handed a two-year extension in August (through until late 2019) but a rugged summer will spark questions as to why CA jumped so early. This team remains in transition but the resources they have will mean failure won’t be tolerated for long. Among cricketing officials, there has also been chat about how long chief executive James Sutherland will remain, having held the top role since 2001. Is there an internal succession plan? It shapes as an intriguing summer.

Test schedule:

Australia v South Africa:

First Test: Perth, November 3-7

Second Test: Hobart, November 12-16

Third Test: Adelaide: November 24-28 (day-night)

Australia v Pakistan

First Test: Brisbane, December 15-19  (day-night)

Second Test: Melbourne, December 26-30

Third Test: Sydney, January 3-7

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