The series everybody has been waiting for kicks off in just a few hours, and while it’s hard to choose any favourite, Ant Sims does fancy picking out some of the key battles before the two teams come to blows.
DALE STEYN VS. RICKY PONTING
Arguably, there are no two players feistier in the two squads than Dale Steyn and Ricky Ponting. The last time the two played each other, just over a year ago in South Africa, Steyn got Ponting trapped leg-before twice. The two couldn’t be more different off the field, but when these two players step over the boundary rope, they change. And when they are in the zone, things can get really heated. Whether it’s Ponting showing Steyn no respect by dispatching him over the ropes or Steyn bouncing the former Australian skipper and giving him a piece of his mind – when fire meets fire, you tend to have an explosion. Things will be no different in this series.
MORNE MORKEL VS. HIMSELF
That Morne Morkel is not short of talent, there is no doubt. Tall enough to generate bounce on almost any surface and often accurate enough to fox even the most set batsmen, Morkel is a solid bowler. His problem, however, is that when things don’t go his way, his shoulders tend to drop, he seems to lose his self-belief and everything that can and will go wrong for Morkel, does. For the pace ace to keep his cool, stay focused and remind himself that he is one of the best in the world will be the key. Whether he is opening the bowling or bowling at first change, Morkel will have to take the role given to him and absorb himself in it wholly without losing focus on the task at hand.
Hopefully, for his sake, Paddy Upton has plenty of spare time on his hands.
IMRAN TAHIR VS. THE CREASE
Imran Tahir is an excitable character. Whether he is running amok to celebrate a wicket or overjoyed when he lands a perfect delivery, he can carried away. So carried away, in fact, that he sometimes forgets what his role in the side is. Tahir is there to take wickets, and while attacking leg spinners will often be slapped around for a couple of runs, how they respond to being hit is crucial. Tahir tends to respond by bowling no balls, an inexcusable act for any spinner. He had a torrid time in England keeping his foot behind the line, and if he can’t sort out his problem in Australia, Tahir will need a serious talking to.
MICHAEL CLARKE VS. GRAEME SMITH
Michael Clarke and Graeme Smith couldn’t be more different. Clarke is the poster boy for Australian cricket and is eternally concerned about his image, while Smith is brash and speaks his mind. When it comes to captaincy, though, both men are born leaders. Smith has gone from strength to strength since being thrown into the deep end as a 22-year-old, while Clarke has probably been groomed for the role since he was a 22-year-old. Both captains will have to make some pressurised decisions at key moments in the game: when to declare, which bowling change will work best, what to do at the toss, concocting plans to get dangermen out – all these will form part of the battle for the two leaders. Who manages their charges best in those key moments will be a big factor in the series.
SOUTH AFRICA VS. PRESSURE
Whisper it now, but if South Africa does anything wrong this series, the team will undoubtedly be brandied chokers. Whether they choked or whether they were just given a good old fashioned beating, it’s a tag they’ll never be able to shake. Whatever the case may be, though, they are up against pressure – and while they did incredibly well to absorb pressure and transfer it to the opposition in England, Australia is a whole different kettle of fish. The final Test at Lord’s saw the Saffas edge ever so close to the c-word on the final day, when Matthew Prior and Graeme Swann looked like they might just pull off a great escape.
From the get-go, the Proteas are up against it, and being ranked number one in the world, they are expected to perform and perform well.
Jacques Kallis, who has been there and done that, admits things feel a little bit different.
“It does feel slightly different coming to Australia as No. 1 because you come with that at the back of your mind,” Kallis says.
“But we also come in the knowledge of how hard we had to work to get that success, and I don't see any reason why we can't get ourselves into position to win again.”
The memories of 2008 will no doubt still linger with many of the players in the team, but if they were underdogs then, they’re top dogs now.