The Test series starting in South Africa on Wednesday night should be the most anticipated by Australian cricket fans in years.
As strange as it sounds, that includes the past two Ashes series, in which England was entitled to start rampant favourites against an Australian side with more holes in it than an outback traffic sign.
That was back in ancient times, when chaps by the names of J. Trott, G. Swann and K. Pietersen (remember them?) played Test cricket and Mitchell Johnson was a figure of fun, not fear.
But this is now, the renaissance summer of 2013-14, and the resurgent Australians believe they are ready to take on the No. 1 ranked Test nation.
There are three reasons the series will not get the attention it deserves: it’s not the Ashes, it’s quarantined on pay TV and the football juggernaut is about to suck the life out of anything in its path.
Never mind. Here is a snapshot of the key battles, what we can look forward to and what it all means:
Low scoring matches
A quick game is a good game.
Both sides have dream fast bowling line-ups, the like of which we have not seen go head-to-head for years.
Try this for quality: Philander (ranked No. 1 in the world), Steyn (2), Harris (3), Siddle (5), Johnson (9) and Morkel (13).
The pitch for the first Test at Centurion looks a green top. The third Test is at Newlands, where Philander, Morkel and Steyn bundled Australia out for 47 in the previous series.
In the first innings of that same match, Australia managed 284 thanks only to a courageous 151 from Michael Clarke, the most under-rated innings of his career.
Two series ago, Johnson made mincemeat of the South Africans, breaking Graeme Smith’s finger and splitting Jacques Kallis’ jaw, in a performance that presaged, well, the summer of 2013-14.
Expect similar mayhem at some stage. Any batsman who makes runs in this series will have seriously earned them.
Cometh the moment, cometh the man
That means you, Alex Doolan. The word is that he will bat at No. 3, particularly now that Shane Watson is ruled out. Given the quality of the home attack, the selectors must have an extremely high opinion of his technique and temperament. Talk about a baptism of fire.
Hopefully, it also means Phillip Hughes. The selectors have been reluctant to turn to Hughes, which is curious. Five years ago, as a 20-year-old, Hughes, with an uncluttered mind and an uninhibited technique that verged on the bizarre, made Test scores of 0, 75, 115, 160, 33 and 32 on his first tour of South Africa.
Things have not exactly been plain sailing for the leftie since. Despite some refinement (if that is the word) of his technique, the selectors remain unconvinced. Nevertheless, unlike Doolan, George Bailey and the favoured Shaun Marsh, Hughes has earned selection through weight of first-class runs. He should play ahead of Marsh.
Hey, let’s drop Lyon
Hey, let’s not.
Unless the Centurion pitch really is the colour of Kermit, Lyon must play.
He was dropped for the first Test in England, which was a dumb call, and was on the verge of being left out of the first Test this summer, which would have been even dumber.
If Australia drops him for Centurion, it should also grant him a clearance to England, where Alastair Cook would no doubt find a regular spot for him post-Swann.
Watto – he’s no Kallis
Shane Watson is to Australian cricket what Kevin Rudd was to the ALP. Extremely appealing, successful in short bursts but, ultimately, highly problematic.
If it’s not his form, it’s his body throwing the entire line-up into a spin and compromising clear thinking. Crikey, even Moises Henriques is in contention to fill Watto’s shoes.
Australian fans lamenting Watson’s loss (yes, there will be some) should not feel too hard done by, given that South Africa will be without Jacques Kallis, who averaged almost 20 runs more per innings than Watson (55.37 to 36.33), and much the same with the ball (32.65 to Watson’s 31.83). Now that’s an allrounder.
Don’t just leave it to Brad
If Australia is to win, it needs to wean itself off its Brad Haddin dependency. Australia’s batting was still full of holes against England, it’s just that Haddin managed to plug them.
That means the top order needs to perform in a manner it has not managed since, er, Hayden and Langer were walking out to face the new ball.
Against bowlers of this calibre, that is a tall order indeed.
South Africa, by virtue of their more stable batting line-up, deserve to start favourite to win their first home series against Australia since the end of apartheid. De Villiers, Amla and Smith are all world class. Of the Australian batsmen, the same could be said only of Clarke, although, on pure talent, Warner should soon join him in that company.
That leaves a lot of room for improvement.
Still, we said that once before this summer…