Wednesday, February 25, 2009


Australia, clinging on to their world championship, have selection posers ahead of the first Test against challengers South Africa, starting at the Wanderers Stadium Thursday.By contrast, South Africa have a settled team and will almost certainly go in with the same eleven who beat Ricky Ponting's team 2-1 in a recent series in Australia.Another win for South Africa in the three-match home series would see them lifting the International Cricket Council's Test championship mace, which has been on display in Johannesburg ahead of the showdown between the two top sides.Test crowds in Johannesburg have been poor in recent years but officials are confident that more than 90,000 will attend the five days.Interest in cricket has been sparked by the success in Australia and cricket has dominated headlines in local newspapers despite the start of the Super 14 rugby competition and the claims of football, the country's most popular sport.Four uncapped players are vying for a place in the Australian team. Certain to play is opening batsman Phil Hughes, while batsman and part- time off-spinner Marcus North, leg-spinner Bryce McGain and fast bowler Ben Hilfenhaus all have claims.The biggest debates are likely to be around the number six batting place and the balance of the bowling attack. 

McGain was touted as a potential match-winner ahead of the tour but had disappointing figures of two for 126 in 19 overs against a Board President's XI in Australia's only warm-up match in Potchefstroom last weekend. Illness kept McGain off the field in the second innings when North captured a career-best six for 69, helped by some extravagant batting by the home team.With North also making two unbeaten half-centuries, he may have moved ahead of seam bowling all-rounder Andrew McDonald, who played in Australia's consolation win in the third home Test in Sydney last month, in the battle for the number six spot. North's inclusion could enable Australia to opt for four specialist bowlers, with McGain missing out. This would mean a first cap for Hilfenhaus alongside Mitchell Johnson, Peter Siddle and Doug Bollinger.

Another option is to pick off-spinner Nathan Hauritz, who missed the warm-up match but played in Sydney.Touring selector David Boon told reporters in Johannesburg that McGain was still in the running, saying it was unfair to judge the bowler on one outing. Whichever attack is chosen, it will be severely lacking in experience.None of the bowlers has played a Test in South Africa and Johnson, with 18, is the only one who has played in more than four Tests in his career. Against them is a powerful South African batting line-up in which five of the top six have averaged more than 50 over the past year.South Africa also have the edge in bowling experience, with a potent pace attack of Dale Steyn, Makhaya Ntini and Morkel, backed by the steady left-arm spin of Paul Harris.Australian captain Ricky Ponting will carry a big responsibility as his team's leading batsman, although he can expect solid support from vice-captain Michael Clarke, who is recovering from a back injury, and the experienced Simon Katich and Michael Hussey.Ponting said before the tour that the pressure would be on South Africa, because they would start favourites, but his counterpart, Graeme Smith, said he did not believe the weight of expectation from the South African public would distract his players from playing to their potential.

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