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ODI losses bring valuable Test lessons

The 50-over series is gone but the knowledge gleaned ahead of the five-day series could prove invaluable

While Australia’s ODI tour of South Africa has yet to yield a win, opener Aaron Finch believes it has delivered some invaluable intelligence on what his Test colleagues can expect in next month’s three-match battle against the Proteas.

South Africa’s selectors met last week to finalise their touring party for the month-long Test campaign that features matches in Perth, Hobart and Adelaide.

But the squad is not expected to be named until Monday as injury concerns surrounding pace pair Morne Morkel (inflamed disc in his back) and Wayne Parnell (a side injury sustained in last weekend’s ODI at Johannesburg) are still to be clarified.

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However, no such doubts exist over the likely new-ball pair the Proteas will take to Australia – where they boast a far superior success rate to any rival Test touring team over the past decade – veteran Dale Steyn and exciting new quick Kagiso Rabada.

Both pace men have regularly pushed 140kph in the first three ODI matches of this current five-match series that continues in Port Elizabeth today, although like all bowlers thus far they have struggled for results in batter-friendly conditions at Centurion, Johannesburg and Durban. 

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And Finch, who with opening partner David Warner has faced the brunt of the new-ball attack in all three matches to date, believes the conditions the world champions have encountered here bear a close resemblance for what’s expected in the Tests at the WACA, Bellerive and the day-night fixture at the Adelaide Oval.

With the plans that Steyn (who has returned to the Proteas’ ODI line-up after being dropped mid-year) and Rabada (emerging as a poster boy for the changing face of South African cricket) have employed being jotted carefully into the notebook of Australia’s brains trust.

"We’ve got the captain (Steve Smith) and vice-captain (Warner) in a great position to sum that up and relay some messages," Finch said in relation to the information this month-long ODI campaign has provided for the return Test match bout.

"I’m sure that guys will be starting to plan for that, making some notes and making sure that they’re across that for the guys in the Test side.

"I think the wickets (in South Africa’s early spring) have been very similar to what we’d expect in Australia.

"The (pitch) at Wanderers went through and seamed a little bit, and went around and that’s something similar to the Gabba I would expect.

"Plenty of bounce and carry and if you bend your back as a quick you get rewarded but also if you’re off the mark, you get punished as well.

"So I think the wickets we’ve seen so far will be quite similar to the Test wickets." 

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What has been atypical is the stubborn refusal of the white ball to swing when new.

In the rarefied air of the Highveld last week and at Kingsmead’s sea level on Wednesday; at the greater pace exhibited by Steyn and Rabada or in the hands of Australia’s more measured ‘swing specialists’ such as new-cap Dan Worrall.

It’s an additional weapon the South Africans are likely to bring to the Tests, with Steyn showing briefly in the early overs at Wanderers last Sunday that he can extract seam and movement at speed when conditions are right.

As they are likely to be on the opening mornings in Perth and Hobart, and seem certain in Australia’s second pink-ball Test is the greener pitch and highly lacquered ball that were prominent features of last year’s historic day-night match against New Zealand are replicated next month.

"It’s always a challenge facing Dale and also Rabada at the top of the innings," Finch said of the Proteas’ pace pair.

"The thing that has surprised us a little bit is that the bowler hasn’t really swung for both teams (in the ODI series).

"Usually you get two or three overs of swing but it hasn’t really swung a helluva lot throughout the series at all.

"Any time you plan for guys who genuinely swing the ball – Dale and Rabada and (likely Test squad member) Kyle Abbott if he gets a run – it actually plays into their hands as well.

"Because they can just bash the wicket hard (if the ball is not swinging) and go to the plans of trying to cramp us for room rather than pitching it up and trying to swing it." 

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It is that plan of attack, employed so effectively against the world champions’ top-order in game two at Wanderers which South Africa won emphatically by 142 runs, that will have been noted by Smith and Warner.

Both of whom were targeted around the front hip and rib cage by Steyn and Rabada who looked to cramp them for room and not allow them any width to crash the ball past the infield.

And which brought with it the wickets Finch, Smith and Test allrounder Mitchell Marsh, all for scores of less than 20.

"We were expecting it," Finch said of the into-the-body bowling strategy employed by South Africa’s seamers.

"Any time you get guys with a bit of extra pace at the top of the innings they’re going to look to - particularly to Davey (Warner) and myself - limit the space to free our arms.

"It wasn’t a surprise.

"It came undone for me in the second game (at Wanderers) but I feel that we’ve got some good plans at the top of the order.

"And any time that you get guys coming at you with a specific plan, it does also allow you to plan and prepare for it pretty well."

Which might ultimately be the greatest benefit this month-long Qantas Tour of South Africa has brought for the Australians.

Meg Lanning Steve Smith