Smith eyes top spot in rankings as Australia forced to blood novice opener

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The Independent Online

Let battle commence. Forty-seven days after Graeme Smith threaded his way through the SCG crowd and made his way on to the scarred field where rampant but respectful Australians awaited, the teams meet again with bragging rights at stake. To the victor will go the highest position in the Test ranks, a spot the visitors have held since deep into the previous century.

If the hosts can take the spoils in the three-Test series then for the first time since the end of isolation, as the deconstruction of apartheid is now so decorously called, they will be proclaimed as the strongest outfit around.

If the Australians pull it off then their tenacity will be praised. In theory they do not have a cat in hell's chance. A role reversal has occurred. South Africa knew their side for the first two Tests several weeks ago. It was the same side that had played Down Under. The Proteas had the confidence and depth to omit a batman as proven and resourceful as Ashwell Prince, their vice-captain no less.

Only one of the incumbents had been shaky in the Antipodes, Neil McKenzie, the opener. It was a ruthless decision taken by an ambitious opponent. Smith's side contains a blend of experience and energy, a potent fast bowler, Dale Steyn, a long list of confident batsmen, and immense fortitude. Moreover they will be playing on their own pitches and in front of their trenchant supporters.

Apparently every ticket has been sold for the first Test though in these matters seeing is believing. Locals were amazed by the five-day crowds Down Under and one asked: "Do Australians ever work?"

Contrastingly the Australians have been discarding players at about the rate Zsa Zsa Gabor did husbands. Previously the visitors could name their side for an entire series; now they are wondering about this bloke's back and that bloke's tweakers. Meanwhile the most recent addition has managed to miss a plane and get crook and he's only been around a week. Bryce McGain seems to be about as accident prone as Frank Spencer. Now he must wait a bit longer to play his first match as the Australians adopt a horses for courses approach on a ground that usually favours swing more than spin. They have gone with an all-pace attack. The batting has been reshuffled with a 20-year-old novice, Phillip Hughes, invited to open the innings.

The main bowler, Mitchell Johnson, angles the ball away from the bat and relies on batsmen to chase wide things. On paper the side looks about as dangerous as one of Her Majesty's corgis. And yet, and yet.

All the memories from the previous series are South African; the recoveries, rallies, magnificent innings. But Australia only lost 2-1 and dominated as many days as its opponents. Somewhere along the way they must have played good cricket. Clearly they were missing the killer instinct. All sorts of distractions had cropped up. Partly it was because the bowling lacked penetration and the captain wanted imagination. Most of the issues have been sorted out and this side will play with a clear mind. It is a fresher side, with a better balanced pace attack. Hard as he tried, Brett Lee has been a passenger of late. Now Australia has a handful of speedsters bursting at the gate.

South Africa deserve to start as favourites. But Smith and company need to adjust to the pressure. Sometimes it's easier to be a rebel than a ruler.

All the more reason to expect a gripping series. Perhaps the decisive factor will be the mood in the visiting camp. Can the Australians muster the resolve shown by their opponents when their backs were against the wall? For decades the Australians have played hard cricket with hard minds. Within a few weeks cricket will know whether they still can.

South Africa (probable): G Smith (capt), N McKenzie, H Amla, J Kallis, AB de Villiers, JP Duminy, M Boucher (wkt), M Morkel, P Harris, D Steyn, M Ntini.

Australia (probable): P Hughes, S Katich, R Ponting (capt), M Hussey, M Clarke, M North, B Haddin (wkt), M Johnson, P Siddle, D Bollinger, B Hilfenhaus.