After almost five years, Australia and South Africa will renew hostilities in the test cricket arena this weekend for the first time since ‘Sandpapergate’.
It’s been the biggest break between red-ball series for the two southern hemisphere rivals since South Africa’s ban from international cricket ended in the early '90s.
And given the explosive nature of their last test match series in March 2018, the long gap between meetings was probably required for all parties involved to cool down.
But echoes of that infamous chapter in Australian sport are still resonating in the lead-up to the first test in Brisbane beginning on Saturday.
Not only are chief architects of the scandal David Warner and Steve Smith once again lining up for the Aussies, but Warner has recently found himself in the midst of a public furore with Cricket Australia regarding the lifetime leadership ban he copped as a result of his involvement in the Cape Town cheating drama.
After Cricket Australia recently changed its rules to allow Warner to potentially become a vice-captain, or captain, again, the 36-year-old stunningly withdrew his appeal, slamming the governing body in the process over its handling of his case.
... the review panel appears determined to expose me and my family to further humiliation and harm by conducting a media circus... [and] a public lynching. I am not prepared to subject my family or my teammates to further trauma and disruption by accepting a departure from the way in which my application should be dealt with pursuant to the code of conduct.
And while Smith finds himself in sensational form with an unbeaten double-century against the West Indies in Perth a couple of weeks ago, Warner’s position in the test team has looked as vulnerable as ever.
The champion opener averaged just 25.50 during Australia’s 2-0 obliteration of the Windies and his test average this calendar year is a measly 23.00. In fact, it's been nearly three years since he has hit a test ton. It's not an overstatement to say Warner is playing for his test future in this series against the Proteas.
And it’s a massive series, indeed.
Both countries occupy the top two spots on the International Cricket Council (ICC) World Test Championship table, with Australia on top, having won 75% of its matches during the league stage and South Africa second (60%).
But with only a few series left each before the final is played at The Oval in London in June, both teams will be desperate to put in a strong showing, especially with India (52%) lurking just outside the top two.
Another motivating factor for both teams will be their poor showing in the Twenty20 World Cup last month.
The Aussies failed to make the semi-finals and South Africa threw away a final-four appearance when they lost to minnows The Netherlands in their final group game in what was one of the biggest upsets in World Cup history — one-day or T20.
Australia has begun its atonement by demolishing a hapless West Indies outfit. The man of the moment is Marnus Labuschagne, who broke the Australian record for most runs in a two-test series.
The star No. 3 pillaged 502 runs at 167.33, with scores of 204, 104 not out and 163, making him just the second Australian, along with Warner, to score three consecutive centuries on two separate occasions.
In fact, only the great Sir Donald Bradman (33 innings) has brought up 3,000 test runs quicker than Labuschagne (51).
Middle-order batsman Travis Head is also in super form, scoring 175 and 99 against the Windies.
The evergreen Nathan Lyon also keeps on keeping on, claiming another 12 wickets at 21.16 against the Windies, while paceman Mitchell Starc returned to form with nine wickets at 21.44.
However, in a blow for the Aussies, key fast bowler Josh Hazlewood has been ruled out of the first test due to a side strain, but they are optimistic that captain Pat Cummins (quad injury) will return.
And as fearsome as Australia’s pace battery continues to be, it will certainly have competition in that department from South Africa with Kagiso Rabada, Anrich Nortje and big Marco Jansen at its disposal.
Rabada has been in sensational form in 2022, taking 37 wickets from just seven matches at 21.97 and Jansen isn't far behind with 32 from six at a spectacular 17.62.
At a staggering 207cm tall, 22-year-old Jansen looms as the next big thing in bowling — in more ways than one. If his confrontation with India’s Jasprit Bumrah earlier this year is anything to go by, Jansen promises to give the Australian batsmen a hell of a time over the three tests.
However, the South Africans have been struggling with the bat. In their recent tour of England, the Proteas didn't have a single batsman in the top four run-scorers in the three-test series which they lost 2-1.
In fact, the Proteas registered just one half-century in the whole series when Sarel Erwee hit 73 in the opening clash at Lord's.
After a fruitless campaign against the English, which saw him score only 107 runs at 21.40, the Proteas will be looking to captain Dean Elgar in particular to lead the way and set some foundations at the top of the order.
Ronny’s tip: Australia 2-1.
Ronny Lerner has been a sports and music journalist/editor since 2006. Follow Ronny on Twitter @RonnyLerner.
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