The last time these two teams met in this setting, things got a little rough. Even before Newlands, sandpaper and the inquisition that followed, there had been boorish behaviour on the field, boorish behaviour off it, a skirmish in a stairwell and Faf du Plessis intervening dressed only in a towel. In fact, that last one was family-friendly by the standards of Australia’s 2017-18 tour of South Africa, the ripples of which were still observable during the most recent northern summer, when Steven Smith and David Warner made their comebacks in England.
Almost two years on, in the wake of various bans, reviews, leadership changes, coaching appointments and many, many discussions about “culture”, Australia return to the scene of their DIY crimes. Well, not quite to Cape Town, yet, but back to the same Johannesburg hotel, as Smith noted earlier this week, where so much crisis management took place between the third and fourth Tests – and from where Smith, Warner and Cameron Bancroft set off for home, amid tears, recriminations and the sense of Australian cricket rapidly imploding.
And yet, ahead of three T20Is and three ODIs, it is the tourists who will walk into the Wanderers with a lighter tread. Smith and Justin Langer have spoken enthusiastically about being back in South Africa, having dealt with brickbats aplenty in England, while Aaron Finch leads a team that are unbeaten in T20Is stretching back to 2018, and reached a World Cup semi-final in between times. The Ashes remain in Australian hands, Smith and Warner have resumed their phenomenal run-scoring feats and their only defeats of the “home” summer came while away in India last month.
Contrast that with South Africa’s 2019-20 season. Following the administrative turmoil that saw Graeme Smith, Mark Boucher, Jacques Kallis and several other former greats co-opted to the team’s management, South Africa managed just one win in each of the three formats against England, losing Test and T20I series, and drawing the ODIs. Subsequently, du Plessis has stepped down from the captaincy, and planning for this year’s T20 World Cup seems to hinge on whether AB de Villiers can be talked into a comeback. Throw in long-standing issues around finance and transformation, and it’s hard not to become pessimistic.
That said, contests with Australia rarely fail to bring out South Africa’s best. They will be buoyed by the return of Kagiso Rabada, who last played during the Port Elizabeth Test in January, and du Plessis has sidelined any lingering resentment about his treatment to bring his considerable experience as a T20 batsman. The T20Is against England were closely contested, featuring positive performances from Quinton de Kock, Temba Bavuma, Rassie van der Dussen, Heinrich Klassen and Lungi Ngidi, while Dale Steyn will hope to find his groove ahead of a final World Cup tilt. If South Africa are underdogs, they still know how to bite.
And, starting at the Bullring, they will be roared on over the next 11 days by partisan crowds eager to see nothing more than Australia upended once again. T20Is can often seem lacking in context – but in a World Cup year, and beneath the long shadow of Cape Town 2018, this could be a series to savour.
(last five completed matches, most recent first)
South Africa LLWWL
In the spotlight
He has often been the man to step into the breach for South Africa, and du Plessis will not be letting his country down now, despite relinquishing the captaincy (or was he pushed?) seven months out from the T20 World Cup. He is vastly experienced in the shortest format, and should provide a shoulder for de Kock to lean on as he juggles leadership and keeping wicket, as well as adding class and nous with the bat. A miserable Test series against England saw du Plessis record a top-score of 36 in eight innings, but he has enjoyed T20 success this season, guiding unfancied Paarl Rocks to the Mzansi Super League title.
There’s no doubting who the camera operators will be focusing on when Smith and Warner step back on to a South African playing field for the first time since Newlands. Both, however, seem ready to deal with the scrutiny. Smith enjoyed another stellar Ashes, ticked along at a fraction below his usual standards during the summer, and comes into this series off the back of an ODI hundred plus a walk-on role in Sydney Sixers’ Big Bash triumph. Warner, meanwhile, put his torment at the hands of Stuart Broad behind him to ravenously rack up 1219 runs at 135.44, which included a maiden T20I hundred and his Test best of 335 not out. The Wanderers crowd will be hard pushed to throw either off his stride.
Bavuma will miss this match after picking up a hamstring strain against England, putting a pause on his prolific opening partnership with de Kock – as well as hurting South Africa’s chances of hitting their transformation target. Du Plessis, without the burden of captaincy, will slot straight back in, which could mean Jon-Jon Smuts assuming a more familiar role as opener, while Rabada is in line to lead the attack alongside veteran campaigner Steyn. Anrich Nortje could also be involved, after sitting out both limited-overs series against England.
South Africa (possible): 1 Quinton de Kock (capt, wk), 2 Jon-Jon Smuts, 3 Faf du Plessis, 4 Rassie van der Dussen, 5 Heinrich Klaasen, 6 David Miller, 7 Andile Phehlukwayo, 8 Kagiso Rabada, 9 Dale Steyn, 10 Tabraiz Shamsi, 11 Lungi Ngidi/Anrich Nortje
Glenn Maxwell’s comeback on this tour was derailed by elbow surgery, which leaves Australia a little light on middle-order options – his replacement in the squad is D’Arcy Short, who usually opens but like Maxwell can also provide a spin option. Warner and Finch seem locked in to start the innings, having been so successful during the home summer, so that leaves two from Short, Matthew Wade (whose last T20I was in 2016) and Mitchell Marsh (last T20I 2018) to fill out an otherwise settled line-up, with two frontline spinners and the pace of Pat Cummins and Mitchell Starc.
Australia (possible): 1 David Warner, 2 Aaron Finch (capt), 3 Steven Smith, 4 Matt Wade/D’Arcy Short, 5 Mitchell Marsh, 6 Alex Carey (wk), 7 Ashton Agar, 8 Pat Cummins, 9 Mitchell Starc, 10 Adam Zampa, 11 Kane Richardson
Pitch and conditions
The pitch at the Wanderers for the pink ODI earlier this month was a little on the slow side, with some unexpected assistance for England’s two spinners, Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid. That said, short boundaries and thin Highveld air usually combine for entertaining (read: batsman-friendly) encounters. The game is sold out, but the possibility of thundershowers could lead to interruptions.
Stats and trivia
South Africa have only won three, and lost seven, of their last ten completed T20Is against Australia.
Their last such meeting in Johannesburg saw Australia successfully chase 205 – although South Africa have won the other three encounters at the Wanderers.
Australia have not lost more than three wickets in a completed T20I innings since February 2019, when they made 127 for 7 in Vizag at the start of their winning run.
“It’s great to have him back. He is excited, he still understands he has a big role to play for us. He is still seen as a leader amongst all of us. He is one of the senior-most members in the team and he brings a lot of experience and can help guide the younger players in the team. His knowledge will help us going forward.”
Quinton de Kock on having his predecessor as captain, du Plessis, in the ranks
“Coming off the summer, I feel good and the boys feel good. The team knows their roles. It’s very well defined. [Previously], the order was out and players didn’t really know what their role was but at the moment it’s very clear. Every person knows what their role is.”
David Warner on Australia’s T20 improvement