No matter what happens in the final Test against the West Indies, Australia have done enough to serve adequate warning to their next opponents -- South Africa -- that they will be no pushovers even on the bouncy strips there. The West Indies have been erratic opponents, up one moment, and down the next. They have been relatively easy meat for the Aussies despite that resounding victory in Melbourne. And in what should be a big boost for the team, Australia, who earlier shared the lead in the unofficial Test cricket ranking with South Africa and the West Indies, have now broken clear and gone to the top. The system, which is devised by Wisden Cricketers' Almanack, puts the Aussies ahead of the Springboks, with India third, the Windies fourth, Pakistan fifth, Lanka sixth and England, Zimbabwe and New Zealand bringing up the rear.
South Africa will be a different cup of tea. The team is organised, sometimes a bit too much so, full of talent, and, as is the case with Australia, labouring under an abundance of players who are knocking at the door. They have probably the best opening pair in world cricket at the moment, an excellent pace attack and a bunch whose fielding is again on par with the best, if not better. A tough act to match, let alone beat.
South Africa's weak spot is spin -- they have no one to match Shane Warne, though this does not bother them overly given the fact that most of the wickets there are more suited to pace than the slower stuff. Adams has a long way to go before he can take his place alongside other world-class slow bowlers and Pat Symcox has never been taken seriously in Test cricket. The Springboks have an over-abundance of pacemen -- Fanie de Villiers and Craig Mathews did not play even in one Test against India after Lance Klusener and Shaun Pollock emerged as good bowlers and pretty useful batsmen too.
Australia have a bit of a problem selecting their squad. There is a question now whether one should stick with the new-found talent or whether old hands like Slater should be called back. The fact is a lot of big scores which the Australian batsmen made in the fourth Test were in the absence of the only real class act the West Indies have in terms of bowling -- Curtly Ambrose. Thus the question will definitely arise -- how would these same batsmen fare against Allan Donald?
The Australian selectors are likely to announce the squad for South Africa before the final Test against the West Indies which runs from February 1 to 5. The tour begins on February 13. Taylor's position is safe for the moment, for no-one would contemplate dropping a winning captain -- even though he has done next to nothing with the bat. But the series against South Africa is likely to be a test for him, one that may well make or break his career. Nowadays a captain has to pull his weight in terms of runs too; there is sufficient competition within Australian ranks to ensure that murmurs will start soon -- Healy has made one or two rather devious comments of late -- about a skipper who would not be an automatic choice if he were not leading the team.
If Craig McDermott does not make it this time, it could well be the end of his international career. Bichel and Stuart have not done so badly for themselves during their appearance against Pakistan and the West Indies and McGrath has cemented his place as the number one fast bowler in the team. There are questions over Reiffel who seems to be sustaining injuries pretty often.
Three Tests and seven one-dayers are on the agenda in South Africa, raising some questions as to why there could not have been more of the former and considerably less of the latter. One-day fatigue is already being felt around the cricketing world and we only approaching the second month of the year. Teams are becoming more and more attuned to the shorter version of the game and this is tending to affect their performance in the real test of their ability.