There's plenty to look forward to in the South Africa-Australia Test series.
There's plenty to look forward to in the South Africa-Australia Test series.

The 5 battles that will decide Australia v South Africa

MARCH'S South Africa-Australia Test series pits two of the world's most evenly matched teams against one another in what promises to be a hotly contested encounter.

In Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood, Pat Cummins and Nathan Lyon, Australia has one of the world's most exciting attacks. In Vernon Philander, Kagiso Rabada, Morne Morkel, Lungi Ngidi and Keshav Maharaj, South Africa has one just as impressive.

Australia has Steve Smith and David Warner. South Africa have AB de Villiers and Hashim Amla.

Before the first Test kicks off on Thursday in Kingsmead (6pm AEST), we take a look at the key battles that could decide the series.

JOSH HAZLEWOOD v HASHIM AMLA

With an average just under 50 (49.08) and nearly 9000 Test runs (8786) to his name, Hashim Amla is the foundation on which South Africa builds its innings.

Unfortunately for the Proteas that foundation has a serious crack in it when it comes to facing Josh Hazlewood.

Amla played five innings in Australia last summer and in all five he fell to Hazlewood. Across those five innings he faced 52 deliveries from Hazlewood and scored 29 runs. Boiled down that means the Australian averages 5.8 and strikes every 10.40 balls when bowling to Amla.

South Africa still won that particular series 2-1, but given their preference to play five out-and-out bowlers of late, they cannot afford for Amla to suffer another such campaign against Hazlewood.

Josh Hazlewood averages 5.80 bowling to Hashim Amla.
Josh Hazlewood averages 5.80 bowling to Hashim Amla.

AB DE VILLIERS v NATHAN LYON

Nathan Lyon is in the form of his life and he will have to carry that into this series, where he will be pitted against one of the most destructive Test batsmen in history.

AB de Villiers' return to Test duty has lifted South Africa's batting order from impressive to daunting and the right-hander believes he is hitting the ball as well as he ever has.

"I feel like I am in the best form of my life right now," de Villiers said last month.

"I am feeling in a good space and the energy is good and my body is feeling right at the moment."

Although he failed to post a century in the recent series against India he was the difference between the two teams in the first two Tests, scoring half-centuries in low-scoring affairs.

AB de Villiers is in the form of his life.
AB de Villiers is in the form of his life.

Given the conditions and his own approach to batting, odds are de Villiers will go after Lyon. That may not be a bad thing for the off-spinner.

England came in with the same game plan over the summer and quickly found out just how fraught with danger that particular approach is.

Lyon has been Australia's most important bowler for the past year and was 2017's top wicket-taker.

Whoever comes out on top in this battle will aid their team's cause massively.

Nathan Lyon was 2017’s top wicket-taker in Test cricket.
Nathan Lyon was 2017’s top wicket-taker in Test cricket.

STEVE SMITH v KAGISO RABADA

Kagiso Rabada is 22 years old, can bowl 150km/h and has already taken 100 Test wickets at an average of 22.04. In Dale Steyn's absence, he is the aggressor in South Africa's attack.

Last summer the quick took 15 wickets at 22.40 in Australia, knocking Steve Smith over twice and earning man-of-the-match honours in his first Test in the country.

Still, he will have his work cut out for him against the Australian captain, who is climbing heights not seen since Garfield Sobers was in his pomp.

 

Rabada will be walking a tight rope all series thanks to his checkered record with match referees. He is just three demerit points away from a two-Test ban and Smith has suggested his side will look to rile the young tyro.

"It could perhaps be a plan to try and get him fired up," Smith said.

"You never know what some guys do when they're fired up.

"He's obviously a quality bowler and a big player for them.

"You don't want to see guys getting suspended or anything like that, you want to come up against the best, but you never know."

Steve Smith average 63.75 in Test cricket.
Steve Smith average 63.75 in Test cricket.

DEAN ELGAR and AIDEN MARKRAM v NEW BALL

For a while now South Africa has struggled to find a long-term opening pair. In Dean Elgar and Aiden Markram the Proteas' have found their men.

Elgar announced himself to the Australian audience last summer when he scored a gritty 127 to set up a famous WACA win for South Africa.

That was just the fifth century of his Test career. He has scored five in his 19 Tests since and last month he scored an unbeaten 86 on a Wanderers pitch deemed so dangerous that umpires were forced to temporarily call off play.

In Markram, Elgar has finally found himself a partner. Only 23 years old, Markram has consistently impressed in the Test arena and across his first 10 innings has scored two centuries and two 90s.

The pair will have to step up against Australia considering the quality of the pace attack.

Mitchell Starc will be looking to remove Dean Elgar early in Kingsmead.
Mitchell Starc will be looking to remove Dean Elgar early in Kingsmead.

Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins each took at least 20 wickets during the Ashes, finding a way to make the ball sing on Australia's flat pitches.

On South Africa's juiced-up decks, they should be an even tougher challenge.

All three men impressed in Australia's tour match in Benoni, with Cummins (4-32) and Hazlewood (3-40) in the wickets in the first innings, and Starc impressing in the second (4-46).

Given how long the Kookaburra stays shiny on South Africa's lush outfields and grassy wickets, the Proteas need Elgar and Markram to bat long.

DAVID WARNER and CAM BANCROFT v NEW BALL

Like the South Africans with Elgar, for a while now Australia has been looking for a long-term partner for David Warner.

Since Chris Rogers' retirement in 2015 Warner has had five different opening partners, with Cameron Bancroft the latest man to get a go at the top of the order. Thus far, Bancroft has enjoyed a so-so time in the Test arena. The 25-year-old only passed 50 once in the Ashes (179 runs at 25.57) but Warner and Bancroft are averaging a healthy 62.28 as a pair, with two 100-run stands across five matches.

Bancroft spent valuable time in the middle in Australia's tour match in Benoni, making a 123-ball 45 in the first innings before grinding out 22 off 56 in the second dig.

Warner of course missed that match due to Twenty20 duties but will go into the series confident. He was man of the series (543 at 90.50, three centuries) last time Australia played Test cricket in South Africa.

Australia's David Warner was man-of-the-series on the last tour of South Africa.
Australia's David Warner was man-of-the-series on the last tour of South Africa.

Just like Markram and Elgar, Warner and Bancroft will have a huge responsibility seeing off the new ball and blunting a world class pace attack.

Vernon Philander has been making the new ball talk for seven years now (188 wickets at 21.85) and is an absolute weapon at home, where he averages 18.99. He'll share the new ball with one of Morne Morkel or Rabada.

Given Rabada was the second highest Test wicket-taker last year (57 at 20.28) and the retiring Morkel has averaged 22.26 with the ball over the past 12 months, neither man will be an appetising prospect.


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