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Fast vs. Faster in International Cricket


by HUW RICHARDS

For cricket fans who like seeing fire fought with fire, there is only one place to be this week.

That would be Centurion, south of Pretoria in South Africa, where the Proteas, the South African national cricket team, are set to begin their test series against Australia on Wednesday.

It is arguably the greatest clash of pace batteries since the Pakistan teams featuring the left-armer Wasim Akram, the skidder supreme Waqar Younis and Imran Khan clashed with the last great generation of West Indian fireballers in the early 1990s.

South Africa, rated No. 1 in the world, will start the first of three five-day tests with the established and balanced attack of Vernon Philander and Dale Steyn, the No. 1 and No. 2 ranked bowlers in the world, alongside the aggressive Morne Morkel.

Australia, which is coming off a 5-0 win over England in the Ashes, will counter with a trio that relies on speed, spearheaded by the ultrafast Mitchell Johnson, along with Ryan Harris and the relentless Peter Siddle.

“I think it’s going to be a tough tour for the batsmen,” Australia’s captain, Michael Clarke, told reporters in South Africa when his team arrived for the series. “You have two very good bowling attacks. I don’t know what the wickets are going to be like, but generally there is a bit in the wickets in South Africa.”

“I’m a bit biased, but in my opinion this Australian attack is the best in the world,” added Clarke, who probably ensured he would face an even more furious barrage than he normally does as his team’s best batsman.

Johnson, who played superbly in the Ashes, has had an up-and-down international career, but his previous peak came in South Africa five years ago. This time around, though, he could not be starting anywhere tougher. Centurion is South Africa’s favorite ground, and the Proteas have won 14 of 18 tests there. The team’s only loss there came in a freak result in 2000 when their captain was Hansie Cronje, who later was banned for match fixing.

The pace trio for South Africa will love Centurion. Steyn, their acknowledged leader, has taken 36 wickets in six matches at an average of fewer than 18 runs each.

Each side faces its own challenges.

For 18 years, South Africa built its team around the formidably unflappable Jacques Kallis, the most productive all-rounder in international cricket. But he quit at the end of last year.

“The mental shift is going to be just as important as the statistical shift,” Russell Domingo, the South Africa coach, said in announcing his 15-man team for the series. He acknowledged it was impossible to find a straight-up replacement for his former star: “We’re not looking for another Jacques Kallis; we’re looking for someone to step up to the plate.”

Australia wants to prove that its massacre of the hapless English was not a one-off, and it also wants to end its miserable run of results on the road. It lost seven out of nine away tests in 2013, including a 4-0 sweep by India.

And while the pace batteries look evenly matched, the top-order batsmen who must face them do not. Even without Kallis, South Africa looks formidable.

AB de Villiers (1st), Hashim Amla (4th) and the captain Graeme Smith (9th) are all ranked among the world’s top 10 batsmen.

Australia has only Clarke (8th) in that group. Its top order looked shaky even in the sweep of England, and was regularly hauled out of trouble by the batting of the wicketkeeper Brad Haddin.

Australia is likely to give a first cap to the Tasmanian batsman Alex Doolan, a late-developing 28-year-old who has been on the fringe of the team for a couple of years.

It has been 44 years since South Africa last won a series at home against Australia — a 4-0 sweep that lived in memories for a long time; South Africa did not play test cricket again for 22 years while it was isolated from the game for its policy of apartheid.

Since readmission, South Africa has dominated most other visiting teams, winning 58 tests and losing 11. But it has yet to beat Australia, which has won four and drawn two of the six series so far, winning 11 matches to five.

Wednesday will also see the return of cricket’s great rotisserie-style auction, in which the owners of the Indian Premier League buy their squads for the next three years.

Some players will take the field at Centurion significantly richer, while others may be disappointed.