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Oz team to tour SA is a more balanced outfit
06 Feb 2009
Peter Roebuck

ALL things considered, Australia have chosen a handy team to tour South Africa. Quibbles can be held about one or two of the minor positions, but overall the squad is as strong as circumstances permit. Of late Australian cricket has had more headaches than a tall drunk. By and large the older pliers were to blame. Matthew Hayden could not find his form, Brett Lee could not find his pace and Andrew Symonds had mislaid his brain.

To a fault, Ricky Ponting defended the old guard, but repeated setbacks reduced his influence and now the selectors have produced a bolder side lacking power but containing plenty of energy and spirit.

Simon Katich and Phil Hughes will open the batting. Last week, I watched Hughes score 151 and 82 not out in the last Shield match before selection. Clearly he is not scared of the spotlight. A small, sturdy left-hander hungry for runs, Hughes has a homespun technique reliant on eye and hands. He learnt the game in the backyard of his father’s banana farm in Macksville, a remote location by all accounts. His dad, a redoubtable bushie, saw that his son lived for cricket and so erected not one or two but three socks containing cricket balls dangling on string.

In bygone years, it was commonplace for youngsters to practise by endlessly belting balls; the string reduced the need for bowlers and glaziers. After dusk Hughes put on his cricket gear and rehearsed strokes in front of a mirror. Doubtless he is crackers but he is also single-minded and brave — as a junior rugby player he’d tackle bulls.

Thereafter the batting order has a familiar ring — Ponting, Michael Clarke and Michael Hussey, a strong line-up that ought to be the backbone of the side. Unfortunately Hussey has been pottering around like a pensioner in a dance hall. In his pomp he hits the ball crisply and to all corners but rhythm has been lost and he has become a caricature. He might relish the more relaxed atmosphere likely too prevail on this tour. Clarke’s decision to withdraw from IPL is the best news Australian cricket has heard for years. At once it established his priorities and ability to lead the next generation of Australian cricketers. IPL has proved tougher and more distracting than anyone imagined.

Andrew Macdonald and Marcus North compete for the prized but perilous number six position.

Andrew Symonds has been sent to rehab. Apparently his personal life has fallen apart. Most of us can suffer or make fools of ourselves in private but no such luxury is accorded to sportsmen. A match-winner with bat and ball, Symonds has become a liability. He must produce results in domestic cricket, must show he cares. Macdonald’s brightness caught the eye at the SCG and he has continued taking wickets for Victoria. North is a robust batsman with a stout heart and a useful off-break.

Brad Haddin will guard the stumps. Hopefully he will not also break them and claim a wicket.

Whatever the truth about the incident in Perth — and Australia’s account requires a cricket ball to perform more somersaults than JFK’s bullet — the host’s attempt to portray Daniel Vettori as the villain of the piece was beneath contempt. Incredibly an apology was demanded in some slavish quarters. Suffice it to say that the respected Kiwi retained his dignity and his opponents did not.

During the week Bryce McGain took a five-wicket haul on the final day as Victoria reinforced their position at the top of the Sheffield Shield. His shoulder injury incurred at the start of the Indian tour in October upset all calculations. A tidy operator with a well disguised wrong-un, McGain can bowl long spells and will test the batsmen. Australia prefer to play a varied attack and the leg-spinner will make his debut in Johannesburg.

Among the seamers, Brett Lee and Stuart Clark are still on the injury list, but Peter Siddle’s sore hoof has mended and he will lead the attack. However Mitchell Johnson has lost form since taking a week’s holiday. He went away as a champion and came back a pie chucker. Except that batsmen keep chasing after him like a dopey dog at a bird, Johnson’s inability to bowl an in-ducker ought to limit his threat. Ben Hilfenhaus and Doug Bollinger will compete for the remaining pace position. Both can swing the ball.

It is a balanced touring party free from the debris of recent campaigns. Graeme Smith’s recovery is likewise welcome and everything is in place for a cracking series between teams trying to accustom themselves to their new status as favourite and underdog.

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