South Africa Tour to Define Current Era of Australian Test Cricket

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Blindside Sport evaluates Australia’s prospects for the upcoming South Africa Tour and finds that whilst Michael Clarke’s men are improving, they’ll be found wanting against the world’s best.

Despite perceptions that the Ashes remain the pinnacle of cricketing competition, Australian fans must tread carefully when reading into the significance of the latest 5-0 whitewash.

From first ever Test between Australia and England in 1877, to the cremation at The Oval in 1882, dominion over the cricketing world was nothing but a tug-of-war between two powerhouse nations. Not until 1906, when South Africa won its first Test after some 17 years of trying did the complexity of world cricket not being a bilateral competition emerge. It wasn’t until 1930, when the West Indies drew a series with England did a fourth nation emerge, before New Zealand, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka complicated matters further as the 20th century progressed.

The Test cricket arena is so diverse now that only Australia has been ranked the number one side in the world for more than three years consecutively since the West Indies achieved the feat from March 1981 until July 1988. Since that time, the top spot has rotated 19 times, only going to England on one occasion; a period of the 12 months preceding August 2012.

There is no doubt that the Ashes hold symbolic, ceremonial and historical significance to the competing nations, however as Michael Clarke has reiterated with the most modest of candour, yet a degree of personality that makes Alastair Cook’s press-conferences appear interesting by comparison, the objective is to become the best Test nation in the world. The last time Australia was World #1 in Tests was August 2009, well before Clarke’s captaincy began. Revelling in the glory of becoming the 68th team to hold aloft the Ashes urn isn’t enough. And nor should it be.

Having usurped England to reach third on the ICC Test Rankings, Australia now awaits the stiffest conceivable challenge – a tour of South Africa. The duplicity of the challenge, that being the tour itself and the opposition, presents Michael Clarke’s men with an opportunity to redefine the current era of Australian Test cricket from that of a ‘rebuilding phase’ to one of consistently high achievement.

Difficulties of Touring

In an era in which abrupt tour structures concerned with efficiency as opposed to comprehensive preparation aren’t conducive to the success of travelling sides, fortune greatly favours the hosts. Since mid-December of 2012, Australia has won 8 consecutive Tests on home soil, however are winless in their last 9 contests abroad. In 2013 alone, 13 Test series were played worldwide, with no touring side posting a series victory. In 2014, two series have been completed, yet this record is still intact. Somewhat ominously, the last touring side to win a Test series was South Africa in Australia in 2012/2013, some 15 Test series’ ago. Even then, a vastly superior South African team probably deserved to draw the 3-Test series at the absolute best.

If any match-up is to break the trend, South Africa vs. Australia could be the one to do it. Australia have a respectable record when touring against the Proteas. Mitchell Johnson has an exemplary record agains Graeme Smith’s men and the pitch conditions are about as similar as you’ll find when comparing two Test-playing nations. However, there is more to consider than to simply state that both South Africa and Australia boast bouncy and pace-conducive wickets.

As Ian Chappell aptly noted in a recent article, the structure of modern Test tours provide few opportunities to adjust to conditions, and even fewer chances to ease into long-form cricket.

In a rare display of the BCCI getting what they want, India’s current tour of New Zealand commences with five insignificant and forgettable ODIs and a two-day Tour match prior to the exhibition of another Indian specialty, the 2 Test series. Potentially the only example of a series that provides the touring side with an opportunity to adjust prior to the all-important Test matches, India’s upset loss in the 1st ODI provides the consummate example of how warm-up matches are required if Tests are to retain their sanctified place atop the cricketing world.

Australia meanwhile have a lone tour match prior to what we justifiably consider the side’s most defining tour of the next two years. Advantage South Africa.

The Opposition

Cricket is a statistically dominated sport, and whilst variable pitches and conditions mean they aren’t as mind-numbingly reliable as those in baseball for example, they provide a good context within which preliminary predictions can be made.

South Africa are ranked #1 by the ICC in Test cricket. Australia are ranked #3 following England’s charitable contribution to their points tally throughout the recent Ashes whitewash.

If the controversial ICC Player Ranking’s are to be adhered to, South Africa boast three of the Top 10 Batsmen in Test cricket in A.B. de Villiers (#1), Hashim Amla (#4) and Graeme Smith (#9). By comparison, Australia boast Michael Clarke (#8) as the nation’s lone representative.

cricket

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The bowling stakes present less disparity, however still heavily favour the hosts with pace-duo Dale Steyn (#2) and Vernon Philander (#1) laying early claim to the greatest fast-bowling tandem of the modern era. Australia’s undoubted strength lies in its fast bowling cartel which occupy ranks 3, 6 and 8 through Ryan Harris, Peter Siddle and Mitchell Johnson respectively. For those curious, Morne Morkel is ranked as the #12 bowler in Test cricket.

Of greatest concern to Australian hopes, South Africa’s dominance is more readily visible when viewed within the context of this upcoming series. Michael Clarke’s team is not as strong as their 5-0 Ashes victory suggests, and the areas in which the side is legitimately strong, South Africa is stronger or capable of mitigating Australia’s ascendency.

‘The England Effect’

‘The England Effect’ (noun) – The state of false optimism experienced by a sporting team following victory over a side regarded as respectable at the time of competition, yet is later discover to have been misleadingly terrible.

If the recent Ashes series is to be evaluated in isolation as the standard to which Australian cricket is to be held accountable, three characteristics should be identified as strengths. Hostility with the ball, depth with the bat and captaincy on the field. Whilst areas of aptitude relative to England, South Africa have the ability to mitigate all three in the upcoming tour.

Australia’s top order is too inconsistent to render it remotely as potent as blindly patriotic optimists have dubbed it. Since the Ashes urn was secured at the WACA Ground in mid-December, David Warner has been dismissed 4 times at an average of 16.50, Michael Clarke has been dismissed 3 times at 10.67, George Bailey has been dropped and Shane Watson has broken down. In fact, until Brad Haddin and Australia’s assortment of capable bowlers marched to the middle, the hosts were anything but convincing.

The table below shows the poor starts Australia made in the recent 2013/2014 Ashes series. Of greatest concern is that even in the favourable batting conditions of the 1st innings in Australia, the hosts failed to capitalise on 4 of 5 occasions.

Australia's Starts In Ashes 2013/2014

Australia’s Starts In Ashes 2013/2014

 

As we wrote recently, we don’t anticipate Alex Doolan or Shaun Marsh (248 runs at 31 in Shield cricket this season) will reverse this trend and with a similar reliance on Brad Haddin unfathomably unfair, Australia will need to hope several of their top order players have career-defining series’ against arguably the world’s best bowling attack.

Dependence on the tail for runs is the natural progression from the emergence of the wicket-keeper batsman as teams seek to ensure all eleven players contribute in all four innings of a Test match. Australia’s success in this department has been highly documented, however a repeat of the recent Ashes series in which the final 4 wickets averaged 29.56 runs a piece is a hyperbolic expectation when considering the disparity between England and South Africa’s bowling attacks.

The table below, which illustrates the production of the last 4 wickets for both Australia and India in their recent series, highlights this.

table1

Last 4 Wickets in Most Recent Test Series

 

Whilst Australia boasts the tail most adept to batting in Test conditions of any cricketing nation, England allowed the five players in question (Haddin, Johnson, Harris, Siddle and Lyon) to increase their combined career Test average of 21.93 to the aforementioned 29.56 runs per wicket in the latest Ashes series.

On the other hand, India’s tail consisting of Dhoni, Ashwin, Jadeja, Khan, Shami and Ishant Sharma averages 19.62 per scalp. In their most recent series against South Africa however, this was reduced to just 9.38.

In summary, England let Australia make almost 8 runs more per wicket than their already impressive and arguably inflated career numbers command, whilst South Africa restricted India to over 10 runs less than their career averages. If number are all that can objectively be relied upon, that is a 17.87 run swing between England’s bowling to the Australian tail and South Africa to India’s.

In the field, this trend of ‘The England Effect’ continues. Australia is good, but South Africa are better. Steyn is just as fast and arguably more hostile than Johnson, however his ability to swing the ball on a consistent basis and probe for long spells as opposed to Mitchell’s 3-over ‘bursts’ render him a threat even when batsmen aren’t throwing their wickets away like England did in Johnson’s career-defining Ashes series.

Philander and Harris loom as possibly the more interesting match-up whilst as we will dicuss in the coming weeks, the selection of Pattinson or Bird ahead of Siddle gives Australia the greatest chance of offsetting or even bettering the consistent Morkel.

As far as captaincy is concerned, none are equal to Michael Clarke. Whilst the Australian captain’s newfound maturity has effectively neutered his personality, his on-field situational tactics and the preparation that Cricket Australia’s support staff put into opposition personnel appears, from the outside, unparalleled. Whilst Graeme Smith is no slouch and the experience in his side (average of 48.2 Test per player without Jacques Kallis) far outweighs that of Australia (38.18 Tests per player assuming Doolan replaces Bailey), South Africa have a secret weapon that England lacked – competence.

Angle the ball across Alastair Cook on a 4th stump line; bowl at Trott’s hip, knowing that he’ll jump inside the line of the ball and play outside the line of his body; have two, straight mid-wickets to Kevin Pietersen; get the ball on the pitch to Matt Prior; bowl full and straight to Stuart Broad. These are just several, incredibly evident and self-explanatory plans imposed by Australia against the English over recent weeks and months. These are the plans that make captaincy simple because several of the ball-by-ball decisions that make the job so demanding, are already made.

I challenge anyone to come up with a list of dismissal methods as exceeding obvious and employable for South African batsmen as ‘full and straight to Shane Watson in the hope of getting him LBW’.

Australia are fast becoming an impressive Test side. Undeniable talent, growing experience, a brilliant captain, inspirational coach and for the first time in years, consistency in selection and a revitalised public. Their only chance against South Africa next month however is if the several English Test crickets who hail from South Africa decide to repatriate before February 12. The hosts will be too good and have almost every element in their favour.

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On twitter @rombarbera. Australian sports by day, international sports by night. Co-founder of Blindside Sport. Fantasy sport addict.

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