Michael Clarke was tempted by the question. Australia has a chance to mark its first test in Port Elizabeth since 1997 with an era-changing series victory over top-ranked South Africa, something that would underline his team’s revival.
“Not yet,” Clarke said on Wednesday, the day before the test. But the seed had been planted. “It’s very exciting, there’s no doubt,” he added.
Then catching himself again, Clarke returned to reality. You can’t think about winning the series just one test in. And anyway, Australia always took it match by match.
“Against such a good team, if you’re not concentrating on the job at hand, you’ll find yourself behind in the game and we can’t afford that,” Clarke said, reluctant to talk up a possible first series win by anyone over South Africa in five years. “I said the same in Australia in the summer. People ask me did you ever imagine you were going to win (the Ashes) 5—0 and you never think about that. We’re so focused on each test match.”
The bigger picture is pretty clear, though. Probably to Clarke as much as anyone else.
Off the back of a 281-run mauling of the hosts at Centurion, where the South Africans are normally near-invincible and had won five of their six previous tests by an innings, Australia is in strong contention to end the Proteas’ unbeaten run.
In Mitchell Johnson, the tourists have the most feared fast bowler in the world and his career-best 12—127 in the first test shook the South Africans to their core no matter what their own positive spin on it is. And Australia has a good history at St. George’s Park.
Australia won its last test at the seaside venue 17 years ago when Ian Healy hit a six to wrap up a come-from-behind win after conceding a first-innings deficit of 101. That game has gone down in Australian legend.
Clarke may not like to look too far forward, but he definitely reflected on Australia’s previous success at St. George’s, and mentioned it on Wednesday. South Africa, meanwhile, has a pretty shaky recent record here.
So on Thursday and the first day of the second test, Australia hopes to “run with the momentum,” after the victory at Centurion, Clarke said, because there’s no guarantee it’ll keep going the Aussies’ way.
“In this game, it doesn’t last forever,” Clarke said. “I’m thrilled that we won the first test. It’s a fantastic achievement to beat South Africa on their home soil. That’s something we should be very proud of. But that’s gone.”
South Africa has started some of its recent series slowly. But few as bad as this one. Beaten and beaten up at Centurion, and now without allrounder Ryan McLaren because of the concussion he sustained after being hit on the helmet by a Johnson bouncer, South Africa had one of its worst recent outings at Centurion.
It needed to forget about it pretty quickly, captain Graeme Smith said.
“(We’re) not carrying too much baggage from Pretoria,” Smith said. “It’s important knowing Centurion is behind us, that we’re now in Port Elizabeth. That’s going to be the crucial mindset.”
Smith said South Africa’s plans were in place and it wasn’t becoming obsessed with the “hype” of Johnson’s wicket-taking and raw pace and hostility at SuperSport Park.
“Obviously Mitchell has bowled extremely well, bowled aggressively. We all know that creates headlines, creates stories and creates fanfare,” Smith said. “And certainly there’s a huge amount of respect in our team for someone who’s performing well. But it’s important not to get caught up in that.”
Forced into at least one change, South Africa is considering batsman Dean Elgar or allrounder Wayne Parnell for McLaren’s spot at No. 7.
Australia must judge if allrounder Shane Watson is fit enough to return from a calf injury. Watson was due to train with the squad on Wednesday, Clarke said.