SYDNEY (Reuters) - The number one test ranking has proved notoriously hard to hang onto over the last couple of years but South Africa could take a firm grip on it if they can triumph in a mouth-watering series in Australia over the next month.
Australia were the last side to enjoy prolonged dominance of the longer form of the game and they could even wrestle back the number one spot with a convincing victory over the three-test encounter that starts in Brisbane on Friday.
To do so, however, their batsmen will need to see off Dale Steyn and the most-feared pace attack in world cricket, while their bowling unit will have to consistently make inroads into a long and solid South African batting order.
The South Africans were triumphant in a test series for the first time on Australian soil on their last visit in 2008/9 but it is last year’s enthralling two-match series in South Africa that resonate more with the players.
The series was split 1-1, but only after Australia had managed to battle back after a brutal mauling from the South African pace attack had them bowled out for 47 in their second innings in the first test in Cape Town.
“It was like the first two rounds of a heavyweight boxing match, the guys had just found their feet and the Aussies were on their way home,” Steyn, the top-ranked bowler in the world, said last week.
This time they will go three rounds with tests at the Adelaide Oval (November 22-26) and the WACA in Perth (November 30-December 4) coming after this week’s opener at the Gabba.
Australia have not lost at the Gabba for 24 years but if the wicket proves to have as much bounce as the groundsman has predicted, Steyn and his cohorts Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander should prove hard to handle.
“We understand that this is a big challenge for us coming to Australia again to win and we realise there are a few unknowns,” South Africa skipper Graeme Smith said on the team’s arrival in Australia.
”A Gabba test is something we haven’t really experienced ... and we need to maximise our preparations and come together as a team quickly and understand what it’s going take to be successful here.
“We are very focused on the immediate challenge and we believe that if we perform well here, it will be a stepping stone to hopefully having the opportunity to retain that number one status.”
Australia’s batting order has often proved brittle since the humiliating Ashes defeat of 2010-11 and the loss to injury of allrounder Shane Watson from the opening test was a big blow.
Lefthander Rob Quiney will instead come in for his test debut at number three behind the only slightly more experienced opening pairing of David Warner and Ed Cowan.
There is more experience down the order but Ricky Ponting has been struggling with patchy form and injury, while Mike Hussey has a poor track record against the South Africans with an average of just 33.87 in 14 tests, well below his career mark of 50.07 in 73 tests.
Much will again be expected of Michael Clarke, who has led from the front with his bat as his team have racked up three series wins and two draws since he assumed the captaincy last year.
Although his instinct will be to play spinner Nathan Lyon, Clarke has not ruled out sending out Ben Hilfenhaus, Peter Siddle, James Pattinson and Mitch Starc as a four-pronged pace attack in Brisbane.
That might be a gamble against a South African batting line-up featuring Hashim Amla, the seemingly evergreen Jacques Kallis, wicketkeeper AB de Villiers and Smith - all of whom feature in the list of the top 10 of test batsmen.
Ponting, 38 next month, no longer does, despite being the second most prolific run scorer in test history.
The gritty Tasmanian was quick to remind his team mates, however, that Australia posted the highest successful run chase at Wanderers to tie up the series last year.
Even though Pat Cummins, who took 6-79 in the second innings and scored the winning runs on debut, has been ruled out of the series, Ponting said the gap between the sides was not a gulf.
“I know whenever we were the number one team in the world it just meant every time the opposition played you they wanted to knock you off, they wanted to see where they were at compared to you,” he said on Tuesday.
“We’re really excited about that and looking forward to that challenge. I know if we play our best, we’ll give them a hell of a scare that’s for sure.” (Editing by Greg Stutchbury)