Australia are pinning their hopes on wounded strike bowler Mitchell Starc and familiar home wickets as they look to halt a wretched run as their three-Test series against South Africa starts on Thursday.
Starc will wear a knee pad to protect deep cuts on his left leg and his condition will be closely monitored by medical staff after he collided with training equipment in September, needing 30 stitches.
He has been rushed back into action after Australia were routed 3-0 in Sri Lanka in July-August to lose their top Test ranking, and were then hammered 5-0 in a one-day series in South Africa to complete a miserable few months on the road.
While the Proteas are missing their influential skipper AB de Villiers with an elbow injury, they have won their last two Test series in Australia, putting the hosts under added pressure ahead of the series opener in Perth.
Much will depend on the potency of left-arm spearhead Starc and improved resolution from their under-fire batsmen to turn the tables, starting with the Test series against South Africa followed by a further three Tests against rejuvenated Pakistan.
Starc, who has taken 115 wickets at 27.36 in his 28 Tests, said he was ready to lead Australia’s attack even though he is still recovering from his accident and needs to re-dress the wound every day.
“It’s not bleeding, it’s healing nicely,” said Starc, whose knee pad will allow him to slide and dive while fielding.
Starc sat out the one-day humiliation in South Africa earlier this month and along with fellow new-ball partner Josh Hazlewood offers Australia a strong bowling attack.”We’ll all be trying to crank it up. I’ll be trying to
“We’ll all be trying to crank it up. I’ll be trying to bowl as fast as I can,” Starc said.
“Just because they’ve got Dale Steyn … and Kagiso Rabada bowling fast doesn’t mean we haven’t got anyone to match that.”
Australia’s batsmen will also have to step up after struggling on spin-friendly pitches in Sri Lanka, with much focus on skipper Smith, opener David Warner and prolific middle-order batsman Adam Voges.
‘Rabada’s really quick’
Australia are ranked third behind India and Pakistan in Tests with South Africa down to five after winning just two of their last 12 Tests.
But South Africa have not lost in three Tests at the WACA Ground and are looking forward to setting the tone for the remainder of the series by winning again in Perth.
“It’s nice to come here with that feeling that you have done well here before,” Steyn said.
“To walk into a venue where you feel comfortable is always exciting so we are really looking forward to it.”
Steyn, who has taken 416 wickets in 84 Tests, once again stands as South Africa’s chief bowling threat along with newcomer Rabada, Vernon Philander and Morne Morkel.
“Rabada’s really quick and he’s got a great head on his shoulders. He’s always looking to learn and his record (29 wickets at 24.44 from eight Tests) is pretty amazing for such a young guy,” Steyn said.
South Africa’s batting still appears strong even without de Villiers. Hashim Amla (563 runs at 70.37), Temba Bavuma (332 runs at 66.4), stand-in skipper Faf du Plessis (257 at 51.4) and Quinton de Kock (308 at 77) have all been in form this year.
There will be added interest in how the once pace-friendly WACA pitch plays this week after last season’s high-scoring attritional draw with New Zealand.
Australia posted 559 for nine declared yet were beaten in the first innings as New Zealand rattled up 624. Starc, Hazlewood, Mitchell Johnson and Nathan Lyon were all taken for bowling “centuries”.
Australia: David Warner, Shaun Marsh, Usman Khawaja, Steve Smith (capt), Adam Voges, Mitchell Marsh, Peter Nevill, Mitchell Starc, Peter Siddle, Josh Hazlewood, Joe Mennie, Nathan Lyon.
South Africa: Faf du Plessis (capt), Stephen Cook, Hashim Amla, Temba Bavuma, JP Duminy, Dean Elgar, Rilee Rossouw, Quinton de Kock, Vernon Philander, Kagiso Rabada, Kyle Abbott, Morne Morkel, Dale Steyn.