In the aftermath of Ricky Ponting’s retirement announcement, South Africa and Australia will both be forced to call on fringe players when the No.1 ranking in Test cricket goes on the line in the final Test starting in Perth on Friday (November 30).
After a tame draw in the series opener in Brisbane, South Africa’s batting heroics in Adelaide, led by a defiant unbeaten century on debut from Faf du Plessis, ensured the second Test also ended all-square despite a tense and dramatic last day.
It means that both sides will head to the WACA ground with the chance to end the series as the top team in Test cricket. A win for South Africa, or a draw, would see them retain their position atop the rankings, while an Australian victory would put them back in the No.1 spot they last held more than three years ago.
Complicating matters are several forced changes as the competitive nature of the first two Tests takes a heavy toll, with just a three-day break between matches. South Africa are likely to be without Jacques Kallis, their allround talisman who played a crucial role in saving the Adelaide Test with the bat and exacerbated a hamstring injury.
But Graeme Smith, the captain, is leaving the door open. “He is definitely not going to bowl but he could play as a batter,” said Smith.
Ryan McLaren, the allrounder who played one Test against England in 2010, has been added to the squad as cover. South Africa are also waiting on the fitness of Vernon Philander, the seamer who was a late withdrawal from Adelaide with a sore back.
Rory Kleinveldt replaced Philander at the last minute and, after dismissing the Australian top three in the second innings, is hoping for a berth in Perth. Imran Tahir, the legspinner, faces the axe after a demoralising outing in Adelaide.
Australia go into the Test without James Pattinson, Peter Siddle and Ben Hilfenhaus. Pattinson was ruled out for the rest of the summer with a side injury, joining Pat Cummins (back) on the long-term sidelines. Siddle and Hilfenhaus were thought not to have recovered enough from their exertions in Adelaide.
That means there will be debuts for Josh Hazlewood and John Hastings, who have both represented Australia in limited overs cricket, and a comeback for Mitchell Johnson, who has taken 30 wickets at 18.13 from four Tests in Perth. Mitchell Starc, 12th man in the first two Tests, will also play, as Australia play two left-arm pace bowlers for the first time since 2010.
“He (Johnson) has been bowling really well in Shield cricket and in conditions he loves in Perth, where he’s had a lot of success,” said Michael Clarke, Australia’s captain.
Shane Watson, the allrounder, returns from injury at Rob Quiney’s expense, while the Perth Test will be Ponting’s 168th and last, putting him alongside Steve Waugh as Australia’s most capped player.
South Africa have only played two Tests at the WACA. In 2005, they produced a match-saving second innings reminiscent of the second Test in Adelaide to deny the home side on the final day, with Jacques Rudolph scoring an unbeaten century. Three years later, they produced one of the great run chases in history, scoring 414 to win on the final day with six wickets in hand. Graeme Smith and AB de Villiers both hit centuries.