The ridiculously short two Test series between South Africa and Australia gets underway on Saturday. Two matches is not enough to decide between two such heavyweights. Even three really isn’t enough (and there is a lovely petition to add an extra match to the England v South Africa series next summer). But it is what it is, and should be good viewing anyway. The ODI and T20 series made for a good primer, both were quite close in the end. South Africa and Australia have produced some incredibly compelling cricket over the last few years, and they are as evenly matched this year as they have ever been.
I gave an early preview a month ago, but everything is a bit clearer now that the limited overs leg is over. Australia may be rebuilding after their 1-3 Ashes defeat, but they’re going about it quite well. They played well in Sri Lanka and reasonably well in the limited overs matches. It will be only the second time that Clarke has lead the side against a major opponent, however, and the first was the innings defeat at Sydney at the start of the year. He didn’t look very creative in that match, in particular he did not look like he had any answers when England’s batsmen were well set. (He now has the ignominy of allowing England’s highest ever score in Australia.) Australia have also brought two spinners on the tour, neither of whom have played in South Africa before. (Ten points to anyone who can name Australia’s spinner last time they toured South Africa without looking it up on Cricinfo.) They may not be a lot of use, however. Cape Town, the venue for the first test, usually takes the most spin of any ground in South Africa, but the Test is being played so early in the summer that it looks like it will seam more. (Though no one is quite sure. It’s been ninety years since the last time Cape Town hosted a November Test.)
South Africa have not made very many changes to their Test side in the last several years and they’ve always played very good cricket in that time. (Though never quite good enough to top the rankings.) Nine of the XI who won by an innings and 20 runs in Jo’burg two and a half years ago are in South Africa’s squad for the first test, though there is a good chance that Paul Harris will miss out in favour of Imran Tahir. Dale Steyn is still the best bowler in the world, especially when the pitches have a bit of pace in them. The Australians (Hussey apart) had a very difficult time against England’s pacemen in the Ashes, and I think they will continue to struggle against Steyn and co. The biggest problem for South africa may be the length of time since they last played a Test match. They have not played a Test since they hosted India in January and it might take them a bit to get back into the rhythm of the longest form. They will need to adjust quickly however; they cannot afford to fall behind in a two match series. I do think that they are marginally the better side, however.
It is very difficult to accurately predict the outcome of a series between two such evenly matched teams, especially over such a short series. It wouldn’t be a proper preview if I didn’t at least try though. So my prediction: The first Test will be drawn and South Africa will win the second.