The time for talking is over. We’ve been through the context and the controversies and now, we can get to the cricket. Come 10.20am on Saturday in Queensland, all eyes will be on bat versus ball, or if we’re honest, maybe just ball.
In stark contrast to all the Bazballing our Test-cricket-loving eyes have been subjected to, the tone for this series is expected to be set by the fast bowlers. There are a total of 12 across both squads with a collective skill set that includes speed, swing, slower-ball variations and the ability to suffocate run-scoring with strangling lines and lengths. Pound-for-pound, the Australian and South African attacks are evenly matched which only means the most likely place for the series to be won or lost, is in the performance of the batters.
If they are correct, and those are the only reasons for averages that hover under 40, Australia could be the place to prove it. The bounce will be true and there won’t be much sideways movement to contend with, which is what South Africa struggled with in England. Although the home attack will be as, if not more, difficult to face than the bowlers they have already been up against, they’re similar in pace and threat to South Africa’s own pack. If some of the top six don’t rack up good numbers in this series, places must be at risk and a personnel shift could be in offing. Similarly, the series is important for South Africa’s team management, as Malibongwe Maketa, currently installed as interim head coach, is learnt to be interested in the permanent role.
AustraliaWWLWW (last five completed matches, most recent first)
South Africa LLWWW
In the spotlight
Irrespective of how you pronounce his name, Marnus Labuschagne is going to be the talk of the series and not just because he is playing against the country of his birth for the first time in Tests. Labuschagne is in a purple patch most players can only dream of, with three hundreds from his last four Test innings, including a double-hundred. He is the fourth leading run-scorer in Tests this year, just 171 runs off the leader, Joe Root, and with four Test innings to play before 2022 is out, he may well end up at the top of the list. He credits his obsession with becoming a better batter as the key to success and there’s no better country to show that off against than the one he used to call home.
Australian captain Pat Cummins has recovered from the quadriceps injury that kept him out of the second Test against West Indies and will take back the captaincy from Steven Smith with Michael Neser sitting out. Scott Boland retains his place for the injured Josh Hazlewood.
Australia 1 David Warner, 2 Usman Khawaja, 3 Marnus Labuschagne, 4 Steven Smith, 5 Travis Head, 6 Cameron Green, 7 Alex Carey (wk), 8 Pat Cummins (capt), 9 Mitchell Starc, 10 Nathan Lyon, 11 Scott Boland
Rassie van der Dussen and Temba Bavuma come back into the batting line-up after missing the last Test and the entire tour in England respectively. Their experience will come in handy as Keegan Petersen is out of the tour with a torn hamstring. That leaves a gap at No. 5, which is likely to be filled by one of Khaya Zondo or Theunis de Bruyn, with Heinrich Klaasen in reserve. South Africa have been considering seven specialist batters but with bowling allrounder Marco Jansen at No. 7, they can afford to field four other bowlers: three frontline quicks and Keshav Maharaj as the sole spinner.
South Africa (possible) 1 Dean Elgar (capt), 2 Sarel Erwee, 3 Rassie van der Dussen, 4 Temba Bavuma, 5 Khaya Zondo/Theunis de Bruyn, 6 Kyle Verreynne (wk), 7 Marco Jansen, 8 Keshav Maharaj, 9 Kagiso Rabada, 10 Anrich Nortje, 11 Lungi Ngidi
Pitch and conditions
Known as one of the quickest surfaces in Test cricket, the Gabba should have plenty of bite for the fast bowlers and it’s not shying away from showing off its true colours. It was still very green 24 hours out from the toss although remained a chance a little could be shaved off. “The green colour doesn’t scare us,” Elgar said. However, it can also be deceptive. The last time South Africa played at this venue, they were sucked into the mythology and went in all-pace only to find the pitch was so placid, even Hashim Amla got a few overs. That was a decade ago and the second day was lost to rain. There’s none of that expected this time with sunny weather forecast throughout the Test.
Stats and trivia
- South Africa have won their last three series in Australia in 2008, 2012 and 2016.
- Between them, South Africa’s squad has 1675 first-class caps, more than Australia’s 1533. However, South Africa only boast 329 Test caps compared with Australia’s 577.
- Mitchell Starc needs four wickets for 300 in Tests; Usman Khawaja needs 47 runs for 4000
- Australia have four batters – Marnus Labuschagne, Steven Smith, Travis Head and Usman Khawaja – and two bowlers – Pat Cummins and Mitchell Starc – in the top ten on the ICC’s Test rankings. South Africa have no batters and only one bowler: Kagiso Rabada. Their highest-ranked batter is Dean Elgar, at No.16.
“It looks like they’ve got a pretty well-rounded attack. Whether they play four of five bowlers, they’ve got a good spinner, and a left-armer. They’re going to be a challenge.”
Pat Cummins on South Africa’s bowling strength
“We’ve always fought fire with fire. It doesn’t take much for our guys to step up when needs be. We can’t control what Australia does. The only thing we can control is how we go about our business.”
South Africa will not shy away from a verbal contest if the series goes that way, according to their interim coach Malibongwe Maketa
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo’s South Africa correspondent
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