Race for the Mace
Tristan Holme looks ahead to the battle for the ICC Test Mace between South Africa and Australia.
By Tristan Holme
Last Updated: 25/02/09 4:12pm
Their bright smiles lit up by the flash of the cameras as they posed under cloudy skies at the Wanderers, you wouldn't have guessed that Graeme Smith and Ricky Ponting were about to begin their duel for the ICC Test Mace which they held between them.
The captains from South Africa and Australia have been unsettlingly cordial in their relations all week, pretending to arm-wrestle at a promotional breakfast in Johannesburg with bizarrely big grins on their faces as the cameras clicked away and generally refraining from mud-slinging in their utterances to the press.
Having both agreed some time last week that the hosts are favourites for this three-Test series, for once neither side is desperate to gain some mental ground in the build-up to a much-anticipated series.
Make no mistake, South Africa are overwhelming favourites to claim the Mace, a short staff made up of gold and silver that weighs in at around five kilograms. Having won the series in Australia they go into this return clash with their best XI fit and firing, a luxury which Ponting could only dream of as he looked around the dressing room during his side's tour match in Potchefstroom over the weekend and did his best to welcome a host of new players.
Four of Australia's 14-man squad - Phillip Hughes, Bryce McGain, Marcus North and Ben Hilfenhaus - are all uncapped going into the series while a further four - Andrew McDonald, Doug Bollinger, Peter Siddle and Nathan Hauritz - have just a handful of caps among them.
The Australian selectors are used to facing just one or two tricky decisions going into a Test match with the large majority of the side picking itself, but on this occasion there are three or four variables to look at for the first Test, which starts here at the Wanderers on Thursday.
At least the top five is easy enough, with Hughes' debut a certainty as he replaces the retired Matthew Hayden to open alongside an in-form Simon Katich. The pair will be followed by Ponting, Michael Clarke and Michael Hussey, so long as Clarke passes a late fitness test.
However only Mitchell Johnson and Brad Haddin are guaranteed places further down the order, leaving several decisions over who will pick up the all-rounder's berth at number six and which three bowlers will be asked to back Johnson up in attack.
Given the swing and bounce that is generally served up by the Wanderers pitch, 36-year-old leg-spinner McGain will have to wait for his debut with McDonald likely to take up the number six spot and North to fill in with part-time spin, which he did to good effect in Potchefstroom on Sunday when he took six wickets. Peter Siddle seems a shoo-in as conditions should suit him, leaving Bollinger and Hilfenhaus to battle it out for the final place.
Yet even once the jigsaw has been completed by the Australian selectors, represented on this tour by an earring-wearing and moustachioed David Boon, they'll still be wincing as they glance across at South Africa's team-sheet.
The hosts are in rude health, having taken the luxury of leaving Ashwell Prince out of their 12-man squad despite the left-hander averaging 64.28 in 2008. They will line up unchanged from the XI who conquered Australia, with new sensation JP Duminy retaining his place at number six ahead of Prince and Lonwabo Tsotsobe left to carry the drinks.
Skipper Smith has recovered from the fractured hand suffered in Sydney to lead the side on home soil, although question marks remain over his continually troublesome right elbow, which has often required him to play through the pain barrier. However that has merely shown his unwavering resolve and his growing self-belief has flowed through a team who are now looking to confirm their place on top of the ICC Test rankings.
When the photographers had had their fill of the two captains and the Mace on Tuesday, Ponting stood about looking nervous and distracted as he waited to head off back to the hotel. After a tempestuous summer at home he looked a worried man as he surveyed the scene on which his side will put up the last defence of their trophy.
As he prepares to take his young team into a crucial series against a team with confidence to spare, he has every reason to fret.