The Boxing Day Test in Australia has a special place in history. Since making it an annual fixture in their sporting calendar since 1980 and the famed MCG as its default venue, the massive crowds have enjoyed yuletide classics over the years. It mostly involved Ashes clashes and in recent times, the Boxing Day Test hosted the touring Indian sides. South Africa too have been part of the traditional encounter since 1993 and have tasted success the last time they played it in 2008. Dale Steyn got on the honours board with a magnificent 10-154 while JP Duminy, just a Test old, cracked 166 to lay the foundation for a nine-wicket win.
The win actually was a turning point in South Africa’s new-found dominance Down Under. In their subsequent tours, the Proteas recorded 1-0 (2012) and 2-1 (2016) wins. This time around, they came up against a terrible pitch at the Gabba which produced a farcical clash that ended in two days. While tumbling wickets is a great advertisement for Test cricket, tail enders having their pads on when the openers are batting is not. After getting a slap on the hand from the ICC for a substandard pitch, Cricket Australia will look to make sure the MCG curator prepares a competitive surface.
Don't count out the Proteas
South Africa were nowhere close to being a bad side in the first Test defeat and the insanity that unfolded in Brisbane will mostly be behind them. Since taking over as the captain, Dean Elgar’s teams have managed to land the counter punch every time they were down. They won at home against India after losing the first Test in Centurion and levelled the series against New Zealand after losing the first. They were too good for Bangladesh later and are the only team to beat Bazball-powered England.
Elgar has always led from the front during this period with 716 runs from 13 matches which included six fifties. The services of Temba Bavuma have also been crucial in this time while last match’s top-scorer Kyle Verreynne has been equally important with 468 runs from 20 innings under Elgar's leadership.
They are a capable batting unit and will need the backing from their bowling unit which has looked sharp. Kagiso Rabada, despite his unconvincing form with the white ball, has been at his efficient best in red-ball cricket. In his tally of 45 wickets from 14 innings all year, the pacer is enjoying his best time with three four-wicket hauls in a row. His fast-bowling partner Anrich Nortje was excellent in the recent T20 World Cup in Australia, but is yet to get into the groove of red-ball cricket after suffering through injuries.
Australia have the edge
For Australia, Mitchell Starc’s return to form was as good as a Christmas gift can be. The left-armer, after a frustrating 18 months, proved that he is still good enough with the shiny-red Kookaburra with four top-order wickets in the first Test. Captain Pat Cummins is leading the bowling pack with authority, but all eyes will be on Scott Boland, who made a ridiculous Test debut at the MCG with a spell of 6-7 in the Ashes. He will be returning to his home ground a year later for the same annual fixture to provide the same kind of exhilaration and also make his case stronger for a spot in the playing XI.
In their batting department, they have too many strengths. Steve Smith and Marnus Labuschagne have decimated oppositions at home all year (they average 51 and 78 respectively). Travis Head is yet again proving to be the difference maker. The left-hander has 513 runs from seven innings at home this year at an average of 85.5, but what’s significant is the runs have come in just 567 balls. Head is now Australia’s rescue man and also their chief aggressor in the middle order. His 92 in the first Test swung the battle of attrition in the home team’s favour which makes him South Africa’s prized scalp. However, it will be a special occasion for David Warner, who will be playing his 100th Test and the home crowd will be hoping for some valuable runs for the southpaw.
Among all their strengths, the most understated one will always be Nathan Lyon. The offspinner has bowled the most overs (466.5 overs from 17 innings) for them this year and is also their leading wicket-taker (43 wickets) by a good distance. Lyon’s striking ability, is also the reason why Australia have an edge over the Proteas in the second Test.
Scott Boland has retained his place in the XI after impressing with four key wickets in the first Test. He will be back in front of his home crowd where he made his debut exactly a year ago.
Australia(Confirmed): David Warner, Usman Khawaja, Marnus Labuschagne, Steven Smith, Travis Head, Cameron Green, Alex Carey (WK), Pat Cummins (C), Mitchell Starc, Nathan Lyon, Scott Boland.
Rassie van der Dussen has failed to score a fifty all year and his scores of 0 and 5 in the Gabba Test might prompt South Africa to replace him with Theunis de Bruyn, who last played a Test in 2019.
South Africa (Predicted): Dean Elgar (C), Sarel Erwee, Theunis de Bruyn, Temba Bavuma, Khaya Zondo, Kyle Verreynne (WK), Marco Jansen, Keshav Maharaj, Kagiso Rabada, Anrich Nortje, Lungi Ngidi.