As far as rematches go, this is less spicy than it might have been. Originally, Steve Smith and David Warner were due to go back to South Africa for a Test series in early 2021, returning to the scene of the ill-tempered and ill-fated 2018 tour that saw them both banned for a year. Instead the trip ended up being a pandemic casualty, so the first Test meeting between the sides – 18 months later on Australian soil – does dull the immediacy of the associations with times past, even if the sandpaper story is bubbling away again thanks to Warner’s abandoned efforts to have his lifetime leadership ban overturned.
Much of the personnel is the same as 2018: Smith, Warner and Usman Khawaja with the bat, Patrick Cummins, Mitchell Starc, Nathan Lyon and Josh Hazlewood with the ball. South Africa still have Kagiso Rabada, Lungi Ngidi and Keshav Maharaj in their bowling ranks, with Dean Elgar, Temba Bavuma and Theunis de Bruyn up the order. But both of these teams have changed in character. The Australians are more settled, mature and sanguine in how they go about things on the field. The South Africans are a developing side, with infusions of fresh bowling talent to supplement a less convincing batting line-up.
If anything, the tension between the nations is more at an administrative level. South African leaders were furious when Cricket Australia cited Covid for cancelling the 2021 tour after they had gone to every length possible to satisfy CA’s health requirements, given the frail financial state of Cricket South Africa. They have got their own back by cancelling a series of one-day matches that were scheduled to follow the Tests in January, instead recalling their players for a new T20 domestic league that will cut across the Big Bash and soak up plenty of big-name international players that CA had hoped to recruit.
On the field, South Africa’s hopes will hinge on making the series a bowling shootout beginning in the first Test in Brisbane. Aside from the aforementioned trio, who have 115 Tests between them, there is plenty of additional excitement. Anrich Nortje has claims to being the fastest bowler in the world right now, having become a sensation via 20-over cricket in the Indian Premier League, but also taking wickets at a good clip through his recent Test appearances.
His short-ball barrages on docile Pakistan decks suggest that he could relish Australian conditions. Marco Jansen offers every point of difference available: 207cm tall, left-arm angle, effective both sides of the wicket, and able to bat up the order if required. Gerald Coetzee is yet to debut at 22 years old, but bowls with serious heat and took a hat-trick to wipe out the lower order of a CA team during a warm-up match. Then there’s Simon Harmer as the reserve spinner, with his vast experience returned to his national team after being absent for years in English county cricket.
Whoever is picked from that wealth of talent will need to be at their best against an Australian side that is enviably settled. Khawaja, Smith, Travis Head and Marnus Labuschagne all made bulk runs in the recent series against the West Indies, with the only minor concerns being the uncompetitive nature of that attack, the distractions during a few low scores for Warner, and the lack of time in the middle for Cameron Green.
The bowling looks equally robust given the current bench strength. Hazlewood and Cummins missed the second West Indies Test, Hazlewood will remain absent for Brisbane, and Starc may need a break at some stage, but Scott Boland picked up where he left off last summer by taking three wickets in an over, and Michael Neser performed admirably in his second match. Both have outstanding domestic records at the Gabba.
Profiting against that bowling will be the challenge for South Africa. Elgar will always offer fight as captain and opening bat, but is light on support. Rassie van der Dussen has proved a class player in 50-over cricket without transferring that to Tests. Sarel Erwee and keeper-bat Kyle Verreyne have very unconvincing records despite being better domestically. Bavuma has played 51 Tests for one century. Khaya Zondo and Heinrich Klaasen have barely played. After winning their first Test in England earlier this year by an innings, South Africa got bowled out four times for under 200 to concede the series.
Before India recently took the mantle, South Africa were the only team to consistently have success in Australia, winning three series between 2008 and 2016. But this is not the team of AB de Villiers, Graeme Smith, Hashim Amla or Jacques Kallis. A much more callow side will need something against the odds to compete this time around. The home team should go in as strong favourites to nudge the history of 2018 a little further into the past, although over the years Australia-South Africa contests have taught us to take nothing for granted.