Shane Watson's calf injury may have serious ramifications for Australia
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BURNING QUESTIONS: How big a blow is the loss of Shane Watson, where will Australia's runs come from and what are South Africa's weaknesses?
How big a blow is the loss of Shane Watson?
It's huge. Watson at first drop was a reliable safeguard in the likely event that South Africa strikes early. His Test record is not the greatest (since returning to the national side in 2008-09 he averages around 42), but Watson was in such a rich vein of form it seemed inevitable he would start converting some big scores at Test level. That's not to mention his value with the ball. Watson is without doubt the best all-rounder in world cricket this year, and his unavailability upsets the balance of the Aussie side significantly. Assuming Nathan Lyon gets the nod for the Gabba, the lack of a fourth paceman could really trouble the Aussies.
With any luck we'll see Watson fully recovered in time for the second Test in Adelaide. If his calf strain lingers longer than expected, the ramifications could be severe for Australia.
What can we expect from Rob Quiney?
The left-hander, who opens the batting for Victoria, will step in as Watson's replacement for the first Test. Quiney has had a solid, if not spectacular, 18 months at first-class level. He was the best blade in the Sheffield Shield last season, scoring 938 runs at an average of 49.36. His Shield numbers this season are poor (68 runs in five innings), but he did smash 119 runs against Queensland in the Ryobi Cup and notch a fine 85 for Australia A against South Africa.
The 30-year-old is a natural opener, making the decision to throw him in at No.3 a little perplexing. Technique-wise he's got solid footwork, sound defence and can score runs on both sides of his body. He's also got a bit of grit about him, which we like. The Aussies are going to need someone to dig in against Dale Steyn, Verne Philander and Morne Morkel. Quiney showed he can do just that in the tour match, and he and Cowan could frustrate the visitors if Warner falls early.
Who makes the runs for the Aussies?
That's the million dollar question. Based on his Shield form, we think Ricky Ponting is a big chance to get among the runs. The veteran batsman has been crushing it for Tasmania, including a sparkling 162 not out against a Victorian line-up that boasted Test pacemen Peter Siddle and James Pattinson.
Dave Warner is another who could trouble the Proteas. The big-hitting opener will unsettle Steyn if he gets on top early, but whether he has the patience to stick around at the crease is another story. How he operates with Ed Cowan is crucial. If Cowan reverts to all-out defence it will be left to Warner to keep the innings moving, and under pressure he's more likely to give his wicket away.
Also, we would be remiss not to mention Michael Clarke. The skipper was in rare Test form last summer, and the fortunes of Australia will rest on his shoulders again.
Is Michael Hussey batting for his career?
Yes, almost certainly. The 37-year-old has hit one ton and two half-centuries in his last 19 innings, dating back to the Test series in South Africa. Hussey can stave off his enforced retirement with a big knock or two, but his record suggests this won't be the case. In 14 Tests against the Proteas, Hussey averages 33.87. In last year's drawn Test series he made just 60 runs at an average of 15.00.
If Hussey fails with the bat we think the selectors will make a change for Sri Lanka in December. Even if there are no replacements whose domestic form warrants selection, there will be a push from within to get some youth into the middle order ahead of next year's Ashes.
What are South Africa's weaknesses?
There are few, unfortunately. Opener Alviro Petersen is on his first trip to Australia and is the likeliest target for the Aussie quicks. The 31-year-old is making his way back from a broken hand, so Siddle and Pattinson will try to get a few rising deliveries onto his gloves to unsettle him. But the Proteas have batting depth to last for days, all the way down to JP Duminy (who averaged 61.50 on his last visit to Australia) at No.7. The only real hope the Aussies have is that South Africa famously collapse again.
The Proteas are also bringing the most lethal pace bowling attack to these shores since the Windies of old. That means leg-spinner Imran Tahir, who is expected to get the nod over a fourth quick at the Gabba, will be targeted by the Aussie bats. Tahir went for 2-157 in the drawn tour match against Australia A and could come in for punishment from the likes of Clarke and Ponting.
Do the Aussies have any hope of a series win?
Almost certainly, no. South Africa's pace battery should ensure the third Test in Perth is a one-sided affair, and without Watson we think Australia's 24-year unbeaten record at the Gabba is coming to an end. If the Aussies win the toss and bat first at Adelaide Oval there might be hope for a 2-1 result. Our prediction: South Africa wins 2-0.
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