I was dismayed this morning to find that the back page of the paper carried Rugby League stories. It’s not even the end of January. Cricket season is not over. Let me remind people that Australia will soon be touring South Africa for a very important Test series. I have stolen the title for my post from a 1950s book, Silver Fern on the Veld. It is classic detailing the 1953-54 New Zealand tour of South Africa. But Australia has probably had more classic tours of South Africa than New Zealand and this one is shaping up no differently.
Since South Africa was re-admitted to the world cricketing fold in the early nineties, Australia has toured six times and not lost a series. This is quite a turnaround to the years leading up to South Africa’s expulsion and most of the series have been fiercely contested, close affairs. Many of these series were the second of back-to-back, three match series. South Africa and Australia would play three Tests in Australia, closely followed by three in South Africa.
The first series, 1993-94 (Border’s last series) ended in a 1-1 draw. In 1996-97, Tubby Taylor’s men clinched the series by winning the first two Tests before the series ended 2-1. The second Test was a thrilling match: Australia won by just two wickets after trailing by 101 on the first innings when Healy hit the winning runs with a six.
In 2002, Steve Waugh’s Australian team won 2-1, once again, on the back of a rampant Gilchrist. And in 2006, Australia, still smarting from the 2005 Ashes, achieved a 3-0 whitewash.
The two most recent series are worth closer scrutiny. In 2009, Australia arrived in South Africa having lost their home series 2-1. South Africa was favoured to win at home and secure the number 1 Test ranking. South Africa were shocked by an Australian team that suddenly gelled (the 1st Test had three debutants) and sported a rampant Mitchell Johnson. Australia won the first two Tests before being thumped in the third Test, providing a familiar 2-1 series scoreline. South Africa has no real reason to fear Australia as England currently does but it is worth noting that in 2009, South Africa saw Johnson at his very best, for an extended period, with bat and ball and his form at the end of 2013 may well have stirred some unpleasant memories. And like I said in a previous post, Hughes and North killed them and I don’t know why at least one of them is not in the touring party.
In 2011, South Africa scheduled an out-of-program, two match series. That series could only be described as manic and when the dust settled, the teams were locked at 1-1, wondering what it all meant. I don’t think anyone could understand the folly of a two match series. In this series, Australian batting set some precedents that still hold. Clarke held the first innings together with a magnificent 150 while all others failed. And having dispatched South Africa for under one hundred, the batting line-up displayed a fragility that has never truly been remedied. Australia was dismissed for 47 and squandered a 188 run first innings lead. Australia then sensationally squared the series with a stunning performance from Pat Cummins, playing his first, and hopefully not last, Test match. And the batsmen somehow managed to put together 310 runs for victory. Just.
In six home series against Australia since 1992, South Africa has not won more than one Test in any given series. That is something they will look to change in 2014.
Australia has swept aside England in a sea of euphoria. The bowlers and Haddin conquered all and covered a multitude of batting sins. On current form, Johnson and Harris are arguably the equal of Steyn and Philander. But can Mitch keep is mojo? And can Rhino’s knees hold out? As for the rest, it is easy to foresee Steyn, Philander and Morkel repeatedly carving through the Australian batting card. And it is hard to see the tail wagging as it has done so often in the past couple of years. The selectors have resisted common sense and have not chosen in-form shield players, players that have positive history against South Africa. Apparently, they have also chosen to leave Watson exposed at first drop. If Watson struggled against England in Australia this summer, one wonders how he will fare against a superior attack, in conducive conditions. Add to that the fact that the Test players have lost a lot of momentum with having to play mind-numbing amounts of Big Bash T20 cricket, or 2nd XI state matches.
I will be surprised if Australia wins the series. But I will be surprised if it is not a good series with a few surprised thrown in. The 1st Test commences on 12 February.