1st Test: Australia gear-up for pace test from South Africa at Gabba

Steve Smith and David Warner will be part of the squad when Australia take on South Africa as the two sides meet for the first time since the Sandpapergate scandal, the ball-tampering case at the Cape Town Test in 2018.

Steve Smith was the captain of the side while Warner was the mind behind the Australian scheme to use sandpaper to change the condition of the ball, which was caught on the television screens. Both of them were handed lengthy punishments.

The memories of the darkest period of Australian cricket came to the fore when Warner withdrew his application to lift the lifetime ban on his captaincy.

While the Sandpapergate is sure to figure in the banter as the two sides go hard at each other, the immediate concern for Australia is the South African pace battery that their batters have not faced in Tests since 2018.

Senior Australian batter Usman Khawaja has raised the issue of facing the South African attack on a track that is likely to support pace.

Khawaja never before faced South Africa’s fastest bowler, Anrich Nortje, who was clocked sending down the fastest delivery of last year’s Indian Premier League (IPL) tournament at 156.2kph. Nortje made his Test debut in 2019, more than a year after Australia and South Africa last met at the Test level in the incendiary campaign of 2018.

Khawaja said he has gained the best possible preparation for his maiden encounter by recently doing battle with Australia’s own ‘wild thing’.

The 29-year-old Nortje has been the Proteas’ second-most potent Test bowler with Kagiso Rabada in recent times and the pair is expected to provide a significant challenge to Australia’s top-order than the modestly medium-paced West Indies, whom they played recently.

While the focus will be on Nortje, the bigger threat could be Rabada, whose record of 38 wickets at an average of 20.5 from his seven Tests against Australia places in him rare company among compatriots who are renowned for the quality of their pace attack.

Only Mike Procter (41 at 15.02) can claim to have taken Australia wickets at a meaner average (among South Africans to have claimed 20 or more), which puts Rabada ahead of quicks in the calibre of Allan Donald, Shaun Pollock, Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander.

But speaking ahead of the opening first Test between the two teams at the Gabba starting on Saturday, Khawaja claimed there was no additional preparation needed to counter the sudden spike in speed he’ll be facing, said a report on cricket.com.au.

Khawaja was confident going into the match as he was recently part of a Sheffield Shield match playing for Queensland in which they faced a Western Australia bowling line-up led by Lance Morris, widely regarded as the quickest bowler currently operating in Australian domestic cricket and currently part of the national Test squad.

“You’ve faced express pace your whole life, so it’s not about getting ready for it for this series,” Khawaja said on Thursday when asked how he planned to prepare for the step-up in pace and intensity.

“I was facing Lance Morris a few weeks back and faced Woody (England’ Mark Wood) last year. You face guys who bowl rockets all the time, it’s just part of the game,” he was quoted as saying in a release.

Khawaja said facing the South Africans won’t be a problem.

“As a top-order batsman, if you don’t find a way to face that type of bowling you won’t have much of a career. (So) it’s nothing too different, the processes don’t really change.

“There are two or three other (South Africa) fast bowlers you might have to face, and a spinner to go along with it. They can’t bowl forever, so if you get through that spell you still have to worry about the other guys,” he added.

While Khawaja and his opening partner Warner will be in the firing line in more ways than one, Australia will be looking at Steve Smith and the new ICC Test No.1 batter Marnus Labuschagne and fellow middle-order batter Travis Head to provide them the edge at the Gabba.

Australia conducted their main training session on Thursday at Allan Border Field, almost 10km across Brisbane from the Gabba, and they won’t lay eyes on the Test pitch until their match-eve optional session at the ground on Friday.

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