Worrying lessons for Australia from SA v India
CRICKET: Humbled by England in this month's ODI series, Australia's attention will soon return to red ball cricket with a blockbuster Test tour of South Africa.
While David Warner leads the country in a Twenty20 tri-series against New Zealand and England, the remaining 13 members of Australia's Test squad will ready themselves to take on arguably the most complete team in the world.
The South Africans recently completed a 2-1 series win over India, who currently sit atop the Test ranking and next summer will tour Australia.
The series pitted Australia's next two major opponents against each other and there was plenty to be learned.
NO STEYN, NO WORRIES
Whether or not legendary quick Dale Steyn is fit in time for March's series, Australia will be confronted by arguably the world's premier attack.
Vernon Philander and Kagiso Rabada each took 15 wickets across three Tests against India, with the former taking his poles at 15.86 runs apiece. Now 32 years old, Philander does not look like slowing down any time soon and he's averaging 18.48 with the ball at home.
He's also added another string to his bow to make the South African attack an even more frightening prospect. This month's series saw the Proteas employ Philander as an all-rounder, batting him at No.7 so they could fit in four more specialist bowlers into the XI.
While Rabada (15 wickets at 20.26) and Morne Morkel (13 at 20.00) both excelled, it's the rise of Lungi Ngidi that should have Australia most worried. The 21-year-old giant touched the 150km/h mark against India and took nine wickets at 17.22 across the first two Tests of his career. The fact he fared so well suggests South Africa won't miss Steyn too much against Australia.
Alongside Steyn's injury, the one major concern for South Africa on a bowling front is the lack of impact Keshav Maharaj had against India. The left-arm finger-spinner only took one wicket across the two Tests he played. Nevertheless, Australia would be wise not to take him too lightly. Maharaj took 48 wickets at 23.41 in Tests last year without playing a single game in Asia.
SOUTH AFRICAN BATTING ORDER IN OMINOUS FORM
With no disrespect to Temba Bavuma, South Africa's batting order looks a much more imposing proposition with AB de Villiers back in the middle order. On some of the trickiest pitches Test cricket has seen in a long time, De Villiers finished as the series' second highest run-scorer (211 at 35.16) - not bad at all for a man playing only his second Test series since 2015.
De Villiers was the main difference between the two sides in each of the first two Tests, saving South Africa on a seaming green deck at Cape Town and dragging the hosts to a position of strength in Centurion. In the first he hammered 65 off 84 after the Proteas were reduced to 3-12, and in the second an all-important second innings 88 on a spinning pitch.
Faf du Plessis (183 at 30.50) made regular contributions, while Hashim Amla and Dean Elgar's performances in Johannesburg will rank among the best of the year. On a Wanderers' surface that came perilously close to being deemed too dangerous to play on, Amla scored twin half-centuries and Elgar scored an unbeaten 86 in the series' final innings.
For a while now South Africa's biggest problem in the batting order has been finding a partner for Elgar but in Aiden Markram they look to have unearthed a gem. The 23-year-old has averaged 52.00 across his first six Tests, with two centuries and two 90s thus far.
INDIA MAY FINALLY HAVE AN ATTACK FOR ALL CONDITIONS
They weren't quite as impressive as South Africa's attack, but India's bowlers deserve plenty of credit for bowling the hosts out six times in six innings.
So often India's problem on tour has been a lack of pace and penetration with the ball but in Mohammed Shami, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Jasprit Bumrah and Ishant Sharma, Virat Kohli has a quartet of quicks who can all bowl in the 140s and extra both swing and seam.
Kumar was the best of India's quicks, consistently troubling South Africa's batsmen on his way to 10 wickets at 20.30 for the series. He criminally left out of the second Test and for a while now Kohli has opted not to play the softly spoken right hander on dry pitches. It's a trend that surely has to end because Kumar has enough in his arsenal that he is no longer a sitting duck when the ball is not moving in the air or off the pitch.
Shami matched Philander to top the wicket-taking charts (15 at 17.06), which is some effort considering he rarely started a Test well. He still hasn't regained full trust in his body, but since having knee surgery in 2015 he has taken 63 wickets at 23.50.
Bumrah meanwhile has taken to Test cricket with aplomb. In his first ever Test series (14 wickets at 25.21), the right-arm quick knocked over de Villiers three times and helped himself to a maiden five-for.
In good news for India, Sharma appears to have finally found a length where he can take the edge rather than beat it. The tall timber repaid the selectors faith in South Africa (eight at 18.75) and has gone past Umesh Yadav in India's fast-bowling pecking order.
Off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin will also take encouragement from a strong showing in away from the subcontinent (7 at 30.71 in two Tests). If not for some rather poor fielding from the Indians, he would have had a five-wicket haul at Centurion.
INDIA SHED FLAT TRACK BULLY TAG
The most glaring issue with India's claim to being the No.1 Test team in the world over the past year and a half has been the fact their success has all come in spinning conditions. Kohli's side had the chance to silence their critics this month in South Africa, and while they failed to win the series they went some way to repairing their reputation by winning the final match on a pitch so grassy even the hosts were complaining.
On a pitch consistently mired by inconsistent bounce and lateral movement, India's batsmen found a way to nudge and nurdle their way to posting a target of 241 before their bowlers got the job done on day four when the surface had finally started to flatten out. Encouragingly for the Indians the core of their middle order - Cheteshwar Pujara, Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane - all made significant contributions to the victory.
Nevertheless, India's batsmen have some way to go to dispel the idea that they are uncomfortable on bouncy pitches, with only one of the touring batsmen finishing the series in the top five scorers.
That man was of course Kohli, who surely did enough to put to bed the myth that he cannot score runs in seaming, swinging conditions. The Indian captain was the highest run-scorer in the series (286 at 47.66) and the only centurion.
WHAT SHOULD AUSTRALIA EXPECT FROM THE PITCHES?
South Africa have made no secret of the fact they want their curators to roll out hard and bouncy pitches for Test cricket, but things went a step too far at the Wanderers where the match was almost abandoned because of its variable bounce.
It would be a surprise if the ICC did not come down hard on the South African board for that surface but the Australians can still expect pitches tinged green when they cross the Indian Ocean in February.
That's a prospect that will have Mitchell Starc and company licking their lips, but Australia's batsmen will have to be at their best against South Africa's all-star attack.