North column: Real Test for Aussies awaits in South Africa

By Marcus North

With the Ashes done and dusted (Phew!), and the Australian one-day side losing its focus in what was a one-sided limited-overs series against England, Test match attentions Down Under are already turning towards the tour to South Africa in March. The Proteas’ series against India has delivered the thrills that were found lacking in Australia’s red-ball series with England, and I am predicting a tough battle for Steve Smith’s side.

Having made my debut against South Africa back in 2009 at Johannesburg, I have happy memories of playing cricket over there. It has always been a tough environment to play in, in historically similar conditions to what we face back in Australia. So the teams have always been pretty evenly matched and clashes have always been tough and very hard-fought.

South Africans are tough characters, not known for taking a backward step. That’s certainly how I have found them on the cricket field. It’s not that they throw the verbals around and get stuck into the sledging, it’s more intimidating than that and there is something of an aura about them with their body language.

On the cricket field there is a line and you are the other side of it. Smiles and pleasantries are firmly put aside. Even in the heat of an Ashes battle, you’ll see players being jovial but against South Africa, if you are in their way they want you out of it.

When I think back to my debut nine years ago, we arrived in South Africa slightly dishevelled. Just a couple of months prior to that, Australia had lost at home to the Proteas and the critics were circling, giving us little hope.

It was a new era for the Baggy Greens, with Matty Hayden playing his last Test match in that series loss, and with such great names like Adam Gilchrist, Glenn McGrath and Justin Langer long since retired.

With new blood coming in (myself, Phil Hughes and Ben Hilfenhaus), people were quick to point to the end of an era in Australian cricket, and that a revitalised South Africa side, with the bowling guns of Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel at the fore, would be too much for us. They were held up as the best in the world; we were now the underdogs.

But we ended up winning the series 2-1, with the new guys putting their hands up. Notably, Hughes quickly confirmed his potential as the new great hope, scoring runs in the second innings of the first Test before bagging twin tons in the second Test. Yours truly weighed in with a cheeky century on debut, while Mitchell Johnson had one of those golden series we became accustomed to him having (See England in Australia in 2013 and the Aussies in South Africa in 2014). I remember walking off the field in Durban after the second Test, having won the game and the series, and Ricky Ponting saying it was his finest win. That’s how much we valued winning in South Africa.

Clinched: Captain Ricky Ponting pictured with the trophy after Australia’s 2009 Test series victory in South Africa (photo: Getty Images)

Looking ahead to this series, Australian fans will like what they have seen from South Africa against India recently. After the somewhat meek challenge from England in the Ashes, the series has the makings of a very tough one.

I like what I have seen from the new pace man, Lungi Ngidi, while Vernon Philander’s sideways movement will ask Australia’s batting line-up questions they haven’t been asked this winter.

Meanwhile, the pace and bounce of Kagiso Rabada and Morkel can do the unsettling that England’s attack never looked like doing in the Ashes. And South Africa know how to dig in and bat deep, in contrast to England, who were too gung-ho.

All said, though, I still see enough in this Australian side to win there. This will have been a big target for Steve Smith’s side and one they will be really up for. Forget the travails in one-day cricket, Australia will be looking to take another step towards Test cricket dominance with a famous win in South Africa.

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