South Africa v Australia: Australia's batsmen face acid test against unforgiving South African attack

 

Transforming Australia's form was hard enough, but their captain, Michael Clarke, and coach, Darren Lehmann, face a whole new challenge on Wednesday. They may be the most exciting and confident Test side in the world, but South Africa are unquestionably the best, and the opening Test at Centurion – the first of three – will be competitive to say the least.

"If we want to get back to being No 1 in the world, we have to have success away from home," Clarke said. "We have to beat the best teams and, as tough a challenge as it is, we're excited about it."

He barely needed to say how much harder this series will be than the Ashes, when his team routed a drained, disintegrating England team, who even now are still in the process of collapse.

South Africa have not lost a Test series since 2009, when they were beaten 2-1 by Ricky Ponting's Australia. They have been relentless since then, are well clear of India in the ICC Test rankings and start as strong favourites, even though this will be their first Test series since the retirement from this format of the legendary Jacques Kallis.

As arguably the most three-dimensional cricketer in Test history, Kallis is irreplaceable. South Africa are likely to include the all-rounder Ryan McLaren in his stead. With A B de Villiers and Hashim Amla – ranked first and fourth in the world – they should still be able to produce enough runs in the top order.

Whether Australia can score enough, though, is likely to be the question that decides the series. Despite their Ashes whitewash, the top six is the weakest part of the side. In four of their five first-innings totals against England, Australia were 143 for 5 or worse, and they relied heavily on wicketkeeper Brad Haddin – 493 runs at 61 – to bail them out at No 7.

South Africa's seam attack – Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander and Morne Morkel – is likely to be less forgiving and Australia will not be able to escape as comfortably this time when they are in trouble. It will not be easy, not least with two new batsmen with seven Tests between them likely to come in.

Shaun Marsh, who has never cracked Test cricket, should replace the injured Shane Watson at three, while Alex Doolan, who has never had a chance, might make more of an impact at six than George Bailey did.

Australia must know that they rather got away with their flimsy batting during the Ashes. Their bowling, though, is a different matter and it is the competition between the two seam attacks that will excite most spectators, especially on the fast Centurion pitch. Australia, quite naturally, will stick with the combination of Mitchell Johnson, Ryan Harris and Peter Siddle that destroyed England.

Craig McDermott, Australia's bowling coach, said this week that Johnson was "probably the best fast bowler in the world at the moment" and after his 37-wicket Ashes that is a reasonable claim.

More intriguingly, McDermott said that Johnson was even better in a warm-up at the Wanderers than he had been recently in Australia. With Johnson, nothing is certain, but either way this will be a remarkable contest.

Match details

Probable teams

South Africa G C Smith (c), A N Petersen, H M Amla, F du Plessis, A B de Villiers (wk), J P Duminy, R McLaren, R J Peterson, V D Philander, D W Steyn, M Morkel

Australia D A Warner, C J L Rogers, A J Doolan, M J Clarke (c), S P D Smith, M C Henriques, B J Haddin (wk), M G Johnson, P M Siddle, R J Harris, N M Lyon

Umpires R Illingworth (England) and Aleem Dar (Pakistan)

Television Sky Sports 2, 08.00-16.00

Odds South Africa 10-11; Draw 7-2; Australia 15-8

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