THE phoney war has been fun, but it will end at Centurion today when the first ball is bowled in the test series between SA and Australia. With that, a team that seems to regard talking as an important part of doing will finally be up against a side to which doing is the only thing that matters.
As Graeme Smith said yesterday: “The Aussies have been good for ticket sales and good for newspaper sales. For us, it’s been business as usual.”
Unlike England, who often talk a game twice as good as they play, Australia are usually as good as they say they are. SA, invariably, say little and try to do much. Mostly, they succeed.
This then will be a contest between the talking doers, and the just plain doers. If that isn’t a recipe for high-quality test cricket, nothing is.
For all that, Smith was not above tossing out a barb of his own. It was based on the fact that while SA have yet to win a home series against Australia since readmission, they have prevailed in their last two away rubbers against the Baggy Greens.
“Having had success in Australia was a bigger highlight for us,” Smith said. “Now they’ve come hunting for us, and that’s exciting. We can show people why we’re the No 1 team in the world.” The first act of the drama concerns the cast.
“We have a lot of options,” Smith said. “It’s a case of assessing the conditions.”
Wayne Parnell seems to have the edge over Ryan McLaren for the allrounder’s berth, but will SA opt for an all-seam attack?
“We’ve been reluctant to play without a spinner for the past few years,” Smith said. “I would be surprised if we didn’t play one.”
What of the most notable absentee in the history of SA cricket? For the first time in 18 years Jacques Kallis is neither a fixture nor an injured no-show. Instead, he has retired. And not long after that other pillar of the team, Mark Boucher, was invalided out of the game.
“It’s going to be a lot quieter,” Smith, who has spent most of his career fielding at first slip between Boucher and Kallis, said. “I won’t have anyone bothering me for 90 overs. But that’s the nature of sport – new heroes are created.”
Australia look set to pick Alex Doolan at No3 and to include Shaun Marsh, who must still be jetlagged having arrived in South Africa in the early hours of Sunday morning as an emergency replacement for Shane Watson. In that case, Phillip Hughes would miss out.
A few days ago, the pitch glowed like a slab of radioactive kryptonite. Yesterday, it had calmed down to the colour of a lime milkshake. But, Smith suggested, we should not always judge a pitch by its colour.
“Centurion has had more in it of late, but if it’s hot then it becomes good for batting,” he said. “The forecast says it will be hot.”
SA’s No1 ranking is not at stake in the series, but it was a topic of conversation yesterday.
“SA have been as tough a team as I’ve played against,” Michael Clarke said. “They’ve earned the No1 ranking; they’re the best team in the world.”
Smith wasn’t about to argue with that.
“If you are the No1 team in the world you have to be favourites,” he said.
In other words, it’s not bragging if you can do it.